OPINION: Spotting a Bad Game Crowdfunding Campaign

Friday, May 12th, 2017

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Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions expressed in the following article are solely those of the author and not oprainfall as a whole.

Ever helped crowdfund a game? Ever avoided it because of the negative stigma generated by certain past projects? Dozens of projects come and go, but which ones deserve support and which ones don’t? And no, the answer isn’t “none of them.” It’s easy to forget there tend to be far more successes than failures (at least on Kickstarter) because, to be blunt, a project doing exactly what it said it would isn’t newsworthy, is it?

As a regular backer who’s dodged some bullets and been hit by others over the years, I have some advice on what to look for so you don’t end up throwing money at any projects with anime girls, cats, explosions, or anime cat girls in front of explosions in the preview image. On the flip side, anyone thinking of crowdfunding their own game should also consider the following when structuring their own campaign.

Crowdfunding

Why make the money if you can’t enjoy spending it responsibly?

Before we begin, I must make two things clear. First off, crowdfunding a video game is not the same as buying it from a store. It’s less everyday consumerism and more an act of philanthropy. You’re paying, reward tiers aside, for the game’s existence more than the game itself. The “rewards” or “perks” associated with it are not pre-order bonuses. You’re not buying a finished game from a store with a 30-day return policy as much as you are investing in its potential. As such, don’t expect your refund requests a year or three after the fact to be taken seriously if you don’t like the finished product.

Second, not all of the advice below applies to every project. Some projects break some “rules” while going above and beyond with others to make up for it. Sometimes a game’s crowdfunding campaign can hit all the right notes and still end up as hot garbage for a myriad of reasons, not all of them under the creator’s control. There is risk inherent in backing any project and, while that risk can’t be eliminated entirely, it can be mitigated with a little due diligence.

Get it? Got it? Good! Let’s dive right in.

#1 – The Eye Test

Sometimes you can just tell at a glance that something is a bad idea. A term commonly used in sports, a player passes the eye test by doing more than what they’re asked or otherwise standing out beyond what shows up in their statistics. The eye test can apply to many other things, including crowdfunding projects.

Is the description written and formatted in a way that’s easy to read and find additional information? Is it clear what the game is and how it will play? Does the project have a demo available? These three points are key for helping people decide whether or not to back a project solely based on what the campaign page shows. Several crowdfunded indie titles, including games like Undertale, Freedom Planet, Neverending Nightmares, STASIS, and the still-developing Indivisible had playable demos to show what their end product would be like.

crowdfunding

Lisa: The Painful added and updated an equally painful demo during its Kickstarter campaign.

Other questions to ask include:

Is the campaign page missing any sort of video? If it has a trailer, is there a screen recorder software watermark plastered across it? Does it include very little game footage or gameplay? Does the video preview and/or main image look like it was made in five minutes in Microsoft Paint, five seconds in Photoshop, or five stock image searches? Are there a lot of typos? Is the project description one giant, rambling, nonsensical wall of text or, conversely, only a few nondescript sentences long? Does the funding goal seem unreasonably high or low for what’s being shown? And last but not least, does the game look… off?

If you said yes to several of the above questions, strongly consider saving your money. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people back projects with more warning signs around them than the average nuclear reactor. The amount of care put into how the campaign page looks is often a reflection of the amount of care put into whatever is being campaigned for.

#2 – Fixed Funding vs. Flexible Funding

A fixed funding project is all-or-nothing, only collecting pledges if the funding goal is hit. Flexible funding projects can still collect pledges even without hitting its goal by the campaign’s end, albeit usually with a bigger cut of said money going to the site host. Kickstarter simplifies this in that every project is fixed funding, but places like Indiegogo let creators choose which type of funding to use, so make sure you know which type of funding a campaign selected.

Generally speaking, fixed funding projects are a lower risk. If the project isn’t fully funded, you don’t pay anything. Flexible funding campaigns for video games run a higher risk of raising some funds, but not nearly enough to come close to their goals. On Indiegogo specifically, one report suggested that only 9.3 percent of all their hosted projects hit their funding goals, and 80 percent didn’t manage to reach a quarter of their funding goals. Everyone loses in the latter case because making one-fourth of a video game typically isn’t an option, much less fulfilling all the other various perks for backers.

crowdfunding

So… what now?

There are, of course, exceptions. Some projects clearly state that development will proceed regardless of how the campaign goes, or that the money is for additional content to an already-existing title. Skullgirls held one such campaign for additional characters and stages. Yatagarasu Attack on Cataclysm explained in their flexible funding campaign that anything they raised would speed up the development process and add extra characters and features. It certainly helped that the team behind the game had prior experience on other titles. That brings us to…

#3 – The Who

Who are the people behind this project? What are their roles on the development team? Lead programmer, character designer, motivational speaker, what do they do? Have they worked on any other titles and, if so, which, and in what capacity? Less risky projects do all they can to answer these questions, though I’d still recommend double-checking to make sure no one is stretching the truth, either about what someone worked on or if they’re really involved with the project at all. And for the record, having a celebrity or Internet celebrity attached to a project doesn’t give it credibility.

Another thing to consider is whether the people involved with a project have done other crowdfunding campaigns and how well (or poorly) they went. To date, inXile Entertainment has crowdfunded four games—Wasteland 2, The Bard’s Tale IV, Torment: Tides of Numenera, and Wasteland 3—not just because of who worked on each title, but eventually because they built a reputation of delivering on what they set out to do, and kept backers up to date during and after the campaign. On the other hand, if a creator runs crowdfunding campaigns for the same game three or four times in a short time span, or makes a new one for a game which was already funded, I’d steer clear of it.

I’d also be wary of any projects from groups that list prior games their people worked on, but don’t say who they are or what they did. Hypothetically speaking, just as anyone can say they worked on Crash Bandicoot when they didn’t, a person could say they worked on Crash Bandicoot when they only showed up in the “Thanks” section for making late night fast food runs and suggesting Crash’s pants should be blue.

But wait, what about projects by first-time or upcoming indie developers? It’s far from uncommon to see campaigns run by small independent development teams, or even a single person. These tend to be shots in the dark unless the creators put in a lot of legwork to ease people’s concerns.

crowdfunding

Kiro’o Games in Cameroon went the extra mile to get funding for their first game, Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan.

Look for anything apart from the campaign page—a developer blog, a profile on sites like Game Jolt, ModDB, or IndieDB, a personal, company, or game-specific website, any stories or articles by media outlets—that might give an idea of not just how good a project looks, but how long it’s been worked on, and the level of care going into it. For example, SUPERHOT made a name for itself at 7DFPS, a game jam for first-person shooters, and in subsequent media coverage, before launching its Kickstarter campaign. In most cases links like these show up in the description or on the creator’s profile, but a lack of any significant online presence beyond the campaign page is a glaring red flag. No, personal Twitter or Facebook pages don’t count.

One last thing to pay attention to is how the creator(s) interacts with supporters and detractors. By “detractors” I don’t specifically mean trolls, but anyone who says anything that isn’t 100 percent pure love for the game. Be careful about projects whose creators don’t take criticism well or, to borrow a Dungeons & Dragons term, regularly botch their diplomacy checks.

#4 – The Money Trail

What is the pledge money for? Most (good) campaigns include some sort of cost breakdown to justify their funding goals, or at least mention where the money will go. Good projects don’t just say what’s being paid for, but give some idea, either as a fraction of the funding or an estimated number, where X amount of money is going.

The numbers still need to make sense, though. A game which is described as almost finished shouldn’t ask for hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete, even if it’s giving out every copy on gold-plated USB drives. On the other hand, a game in the concept stages probably shouldn’t be asking for an amount so low it could be printed on a few gift cards.

crowdfunding

The cost breakdown from Cosmic Star Heroine’s Kickstarter page.

A campaign which includes living expenses as part of the costs separate from working wages should raise an eyebrow if the numbers don’t add up. Let’s say a campaign based out of the United States has ten percent of a $20,000 goal going to living expenses (housing, food, etc.) to work full-time on a game with one year of development ahead of it. That’s $2,000 the team or individual dedicates to living expenses, or about $167 per month. Meanwhile, the average cost of living for one adult in the US is a little over $2,000 per month. This requires a bit more reading between the lines, which leads to the last predictably-named bit of advice.

#5 – Read Between the Lines

If it sounds like I’m asking you to do a lot of thinking and research before backing a crowdfunding project, it’s because you absolutely should. This is not the type of thing to do on impulse. Watch every video, read the whole campaign page, read any updates, and find related information outside the funding platform. Beyond that, however, you should also be able to pick out things that don’t add up.

Estimated release dates are often best case scenarios, given how frequently crowdfunded games get delayed. That said, two or three months after the campaign ends is an alarmingly quick turnaround time, even for mostly complete projects running on a generic game engine. On a related note, if you can tell a campaign’s game is using default or store-bought assets (character models, sounds, menu graphics, entire levels, etc.) and not only makes no mention of them, but says the game is near completion, consider reporting the project instead of pledging to it.

Look at a campaign’s perks. Do the prices for them make sense based on what the game is or will be? Why would a game which will be free to play have a $10 reward tier for a copy of the game? Are there only two or three tiers total? Are the reward descriptions copy-pasted across several tiers? Then there are the too-good-to-be-true tiers. Pledging $10 for a download code, a key ring, a soundtrack CD and an art print sounds great, but on shipping costs alone that’s losing way more money than it’s bringing in.

One of the more significant red flags is, unfortunately, something most campaigns won’t admit or don’t initially plan. Some crowdfunded games end up counting at least in part on becoming episodic. This lets Episode 1 finish development and go on sale early, earning money to go toward finishing the rest of the game. Some developers employ this to lower their projected goal a bit, making it more likely they’ll get funded. Sadly, a finished product can’t be funded by phantom money, but can be doomed by lower than expected sales. Steam alone has several single-episode games from defunct studios rotting on its storefront.

Oh, and if the description or updates mention sequels or becoming a franchise before the campaign for the first game is over, run far, far away.

crowdfunding

… No.

Much of this boils down to exercising some common sense and not treating money like seed to throw to the indie birds. You (hopefully) earned your money, so it’s only fair a campaign does what it can to earn that on top of your trust, primarily through transparency and communication. Be smart, be safe, and be supportive to campaigns that truly deserve it.

About Scott Ramage

Scott Ramage wears many hats. From podcasts to football games to let's plays to pro wrestling matches, he has dabbled in several fields while pursuing a Japanese degree to go with his English degree. One of the few constants for him is that he's been a fan of video games since first playing Pole Position on the Atari 2600.