When Double Fine debuted their Kickstarter campaign for the project that would become Broken Age, the gaming press exploded with the news. For years, games had been at the whim of big publishers, needing to appeal to businessmen who only know the games industry as a series of numbers and variables. Focus tested, safe game concepts got approved over original, innovative ideas. With Kickstarter, all of that could change. Going directly to the fans, creativity and artistic vision could reign once more, letting fresh ideas take the place of stale remakes and sequels.
It’s been more than a year since the huge success of Double Fine’s Kickstarter, and the revolution has not come. Crowdfunding, though full of promise, has thus far proved merely an alternate source of sequelitis, and worse yet, those backed on Kickstarter don’t seem to feel much of a responsibility to ship the product they’ve promised. As many horror stories as we’ve heard about how publishers treat developers, at least they pushed them to actually stick to their word and make what they say they will, or risk losing funding.
A few original games have been funded, to be certain, but overwhelmingly support flows to games far more familiar. Shadowrun Returns, a resurrection of the Shadowrun franchise; Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, a sequel to the Shantae platformers; Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded, a remake of a REMAKE of an 80s point and click adventure game; the list goes on and on. This can’t really be blamed on creators- simply put, to appeal to the mass market requires playing it safe. Nostalgia and known brands sell, and creators want to maximize their odds of selling.
The bigger problem is the lack of responsibility. Broken Age raised more than eight times what Double Fine asked for, and yet it is now running so far over budget that they are going to sell the game half-complete on Steam Early Access to raise funds for the second half of it. Subutai Corporation’s Clang raised half a million dollars to make a game, only to later announce that they weren’t really using it to build a game, they were using it to build a demo of a game to show to potential investors, and that they had failed to do so, leaving the game in limbo. In a publisher-controlled market, both of these betrayals of trust would have had repercussions- they would have either had their noses put to the grindstone, and been forced to do what they’d promised, or their funding would be cut off. But crowdfunders have no power over those they’ve donated to.
Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and sites like it certainly have their uses, and they can be a way to get projects off the ground that would never happen otherwise. But the fact is, they tend toward more conservative projects, they inherently stifle creativity, and there is no way to hold a funded project’s feet to the fire. They can take your money and run, and we’ve known that all along, but that’s not the real problem- the real problem is that they can with perfectly good intentions run in circles for months while burning money, dreaming bigger than they could ever hope to actually create and wasting the funding and support of the fans that were so dedicated to them. It turns out, when you take the taskmasters out of the picture, you remember why they were there in the first place.