Wednesday 29 August 2012

SOOG: Kickstarter

Kickstarter. What a fine establishment. It's here to fund a new generation of gaming... and film production... and a democratised middle east... and whatever else.

It's a system that's gathered nothing but praise. A project asks for money, you donate, and you can get nice little prises in return. What an excellent idea.

I find it odd that anybody, be it individuals or groups, can accept hand-outs from the public with the view of giving nothing of value back in return. Even if you're not able to repay the kindness in full, failing to try seems like a selfish and untrustworthy way to live your life. Sure, this implies that someone in the relationship is due to feel awkward regardless of the outcome, that's very much the point of charity - you expect the favour to be returned in some form (be it a physical item or service, or way to satisfy guilt or your desires to change the world), just sugarcoated it in the nicest possible way to alleviate stress and worry.

Charity is a bit redundant. It's an odd institution that we keep alive on the basis that it's too awkward to abolish. The concept has evolved with the much more sturdy arrangement of written contracts and trade deals, but people freak out if you're remotely critical thanks to the vast array of problems charities like to help solve. Cancer research is untouchable because we don't want to believe that there's the slightest chance the money is being put to waste. Thinking about these things hurt - law abiding contracts are bad, leeching off friends is good - it's a minefield of emotion and I'd rather avoid it entirely. At least with big donations.

So straight away it was likely that I wouldn't get on with Kickstarter, mass creator of dubious charities and demands. At Kickstarter, projects are spawned on a daily basis to attract money from the general public. In return, you get a product or service later down the line, possibly a bonus or two along the way for showing an interest. It's a new novel way to apply for funding - now you can raise your tens of thousands just by asking! Who needs capitalism!?

I originally came into contact with Kickstarter due to the announcement and subsequent fundraising of the Angry Video Game Nerd movie. This was a fairly normal Kickstarter project - director James Rolfe, complete with several years of amateur film making experience, wanted to make a feature length episode of one of the internet's most popular web shows. An extremely expensive project, the original goal was one that would see the film partly-funded by fans, the rest of the money coming from investors. The target amount was both raised and surpassed within a matter of weeks, and the latter source of funding stopped being a necessity.

Whether the movie is any good is a moot point - the kindness of strangers has allowed one man to fulfil his dream as well as give back something to the internet as a whole - and for many, it's considered a win-win situation for all those involved. Though there may be an element of guilt on The Nerd's side for having been given more than he asked for, much of the worry is made up for by the hours of free entertainment supplied by Cinemassacre since 2006. It may not be a perfectly balanced situation, but the difference is negligible and nobody cares.

In many ways, Kickstarter was true to its name here - it was a kick start for an aspiring movie director, faced with an initial hurdle that could have taken many years to overcome. Getting over this barrier doesn't guarantee a good movie, but it's a case of humans banding together to solve one of life's problems, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Were there many nasty hurdles along the line the idea may have got stale, but there are certainly good things to say about keeping a project free from outside intervention, particularly when it's only meant to appeal to a niche audience.

But what of video games? Well, there's a sequel to Great Giana Sisters up on Kickstarter at the time of writing, and it fascinates me for multiple reasons. Here, rather than fund the neigh-on impossible, Kickstarter is being used to plug a five figure gap in funding. Large parts of the game are already done, but the company involved can't afford to pay its own staff because, by its own admission, it failed to budget correctly. The two options on their table were to either delay the game, or launch a Kickstarter project to get it out as soon as possible.

We can see the difference, right? One is a "start", the other is an "end" - the AVGN project was totally out of its depth and against the odds, while Great Giana Sisters is struggling to due incompetence. Makes sense right?.. erm... actually there's not a great deal separating the two projects. Both needed money, and both relied on fans to fulfil their goal - they are technically equals.

The thing is, as much as I'd love to go into great detail about why it's wrong for a professional company to take its development money from the public, I'm really not sure I can separate the two in a meaningful way. It's clear that the AVGN movie needed more help, but theoretically both could have achieved their goals without fan intervention. The fans in both situations serve as an optional catalyst to speed up the release, and the only reason you'd want such a thing is due to impatience, greed, or maybe in AVGN's case, to get something back from the fans you've entertained.

Kickstarter is already seeing its fair share of truly dodgy projects, such as the attempt at "fixing" Cheetahmen II for the NES... without alluding to the fact that there's a free patch already online. It's a good place to pour money down the drain in spectacular ways, and though all good projects offer bonuses to donors, inevitably someone will take the money and run - it's the internet, and systems are abused. That being said, there's a good chance that's happening already.

Kickstarter isn't really helping the world by existing. It's difficult to like when you're a cynic like me, but it's equally difficult to hate, if not just for the much needed press coverage some of these projects receive on the side. Resorting to fan donations should be a last resort, yet many seem to have forgotten this, or are simply not exploring other options to their fullest. Every single thing on site could be labelled as dishonest, but at the same time, there are plenty of people who are far more trusting than me, and the concept of monetary donations simply doesn't bother them.

Of course it's not up to me to suggest where money is spent, but I don't think I could personally ever see myself using such a service were I to embark on something meaningful. The whole thing seems so damned tedious - I spotted a sequel to DOS classic Jetpack up there and my heart says donate, but with two separate listings with radically different monetary goals, my head suggests Adam Pedersen can't be trusted. He can't even do basic maths from the sounds of things, but yet... he made Jetpack, one of the greatest video games ever made.

How can one truthfully admire a service when it's littered with dilemmas such as these? Obviously in some cases the service is highlighting much needed long-term industry change, but Kickstarter alone won't solve these problems. For the most part, I can't help but back the current system - going out, earning things the proper way, seeking supplies from proper investors if needed, and letting the customers approve with their wallets when the product goes on sale. Maybe big publishers do suck, but unless there's a grand plan not to buy Call of Duty: Black Ops II this Christmas, that's unlikely to change in the near future.

It's a strange situation. If you treat Kickstarter like a pre-ordering service you're likely to get on fine, but as a revolutionary way to fund projects of the future? I wouldn't count on it. It's not good, but it's not really bad - it's just awkward.

On the plus side, Ouya uses the same button colour scheme as the Dreamcast. Clearly someone on that site has some class.

1 comment:

  1. And less than two days after posting this:

    there was an upset. Oops.