Journalism vs. Crowdfunding

It’s been two years since the Double Fine Kickstarter changed how we think about game budgets and funding. Crowdfunding has become a way of life in the industry, and every small studio gets to ask themselves: do we need a publisher, or can we do without? It’s hardly a panacea for the industry’s woes, but for many developers the option to work for their fans instead of corporate investors is an absolute godsend. Gamers can contribute to whatever projects pique their fancy. There’s certainly reason for caution with your money, but so far the predicted big crowdfunded failure- a project that met its funding goal, and then simply failed to manifest- hasn’t occurred. There are some projects dangerously on the edge, and we don’t know for sure yet, but the level of good faith shown thus far is pretty astonishing. The record is fairly encouraging, and the future of this funding method is bright.

A lot of these projects only get the attention they need to survive because of game journalists, the more popular of whom can turn a Kickstarter around with a simple endorsement. Strangely, however, the common consensus among industry writers is that it is unethical to contribute to a crowdfunded game yourself. It’s a strange situation to be sure, but the logic expressed baffles me. Writers whom I deeply respect- Alex Navarro, Colin Moriarty, and Patrick Klepek- have casually stated that of course they couldn’t contribute to a project they were interested in themselves, because of their job.

I’m not so arrogant as to think that I know better than this entire profession- clearly there’s something going on here that I don’t understand. To that end, I have thus far complied with this guideline, not donating to projects myself- with one exception. I did donate to a project before any consensus on the ethics existed, but when the industry’s stance became clear, I declined to claim my backer reward, and did not write about the game. If I’m going to keep on in this field, however, I have to understand why I’m doing this. The only solution I can think of is to present the best version of my logic as to why donating is not unethical, in the hope that one of my peers can read this and explain what I’m missing. I think that my confusion is probably reflected in the larger population, and it can only make things better for there to be a proper explanation of the thinking here.

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It would be easier to understand if I had never heard any arguments for journalists avoiding Kickstarters, but in fact I have heard some, and they make no sense to me. The most common suggestion is that contributing to a Kickstarter is an investment- by giving to one, you throw your lot in with theirs, and you are motivated to make them sound good to sell more copies. It’s a basic conflict of interest, is the argument- your incentive to talk up the project conflicts with your duty to be honest and open to the public about the project.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of crowdfunding. When you give Double Fine twenty bucks to make Broken Age, you do not therefore own a piece of Double Fine. As a matter of fact, you do not own anything- it is considered a donation. Double Fine appreciates your support, and so they agree to give you a copy of the game, but they are not actually legally obligated to do so. That’s part of what makes the idea of the “take the money and run” Kickstarter so scary- if the team behind the project made the effort to produce what they Kickstarted, and simply failed to do so, they have broken no laws. There is literally nothing preventing them from walking into the sunset with your money, other than their reputation.

This means there is no conflict of interest- if you don’t own any part of Double Fine, you don’t gain or lose anything by talking them up. At most, if you donate to a project and then report on it before its crowdfunding initiative has closed, you could motivate more people to donate. This still doesn’t affect ethics, however- the same thing would be true if you reported on it without having donated. Any reporting on a Kickstarter in progress will have an effect on its success, assuming a decent-sized readership. If the Kickstarter fails, you don’t even lose the money that you’ve promised to the project.

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I have heard it argued that this alone is motivation enough- that a journalist is driven to talk up a project in progress so that it will get funded, and they will get the game that they donated for. I have trouble seeing this as any different from an impressions or preview article. Again, journalists have the power to influence their audience- a review sells copies of a game, and a preview drives preorders. Trying to completely separate industry reporting from the business side of things is not only impossible, it wouldn’t be a good idea if it was doable. Journalists exist partially as consumer advocates- it is our job to, to the best of our ability, advise the public on what is worth their time and money. Crowdfunding is just a new, slightly more complex version of that.

Even if crowdfunding was somehow different, if affecting its trajectory was somehow more manipulative of the markets than a simple review, then the solution is unbelievably simple: don’t report on them until they’re funded. Once a project has either made their goal or missed it, your personal investment in it does not matter in the slightest. The project is no longer asking for money, and simply becomes another product- it is in development, and it will one day come out and try to sell copies. If this is troubling, it’s no more troubling than review copies, press builds, and preview events. If you think these things are a corrupting influence on a journalist, you clearly didn’t trust the journalist in the first place, and should probably stop reading their work. That includes me- if you see that I’ve gotten a press copy of a game, and you think that means I’ll go easy on it, then you probably aren’t getting much out of my writing, and should stop reading. Trust is key.

That’s really what this comes down to- do you really think the people reporting for you are so easily bought and sold? Do you think that they are incapable of separating personal and professional feelings? And to my fellow journalists- do you not trust yourselves? Do you not think you can write about something you’re enough of a fan to support without being tinted by bias? I have more faith in games journalism and its journalists than that. The incredible writing and reporting I’ve seen even in just the past year have made me immensely proud to even just be an amateur journalist. It’s a fantastic time to be in this industry, and a hard one- there are so many amazing talents that it’s hard to stand out. That’s a truly wonderful thing.

I’m really at my wit’s end here- what am I missing? What piece of this puzzle eludes me that so many of my inspirations and examples of excellency just matter-of-factly stand on the other side of this issue? Please, absolutely email me- [email protected]. I want to know what I’m missing, I want to understand… and so does the rest of the gaming community. It’s a confusing issue, and it’s never been properly explained. Let’s clear this up for our own sake as much as everyone else’s.