Atomp Discusses: Crowdfunding, Early Access and Gaming Part 2

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Tom Hooper aka Atomp
This is the concluding half of a two part article discussing the current significant trends in gaming of early access and crowdfunding and the changes these are having upon the industry. We are now seeing shifts that would previously have been unimaginable as new tools and models are being used to make the games that people want to play and not the games that the publishers want to sell. Recent events involving the failure of Yogventures have placed Kickstarters in the spotlight and drawn the sceptics and idiots out of the woodwork. the situation has shown that crowdfunding always carries a risk and that it is most certainly not an investment, there is always the risk that you will see no return on your donation whatsoever. The cries of foul play in the mismanagement are somewhat redundant  in terms of crowdfunding because whilst the project did fail and it was due to mismanagement, there is no need within the terms and conditions for refunds. Despite this failure I stand by my generally positive view on crowdfunding although this really highlights the need to be a sensible consumer who is willing to research before buying. Certain sanitised stores like the App Store have spoiled consumers ability to actually purchase sensibly and if such individuals begin crowdfunding with the impression of getting an exceptional return 100% of the time then there could be a whole slew of complaints. Crowdfunding is not a pre-order, crowdfunding is not a financial investment. Crowdfunding is a voluntary donation to a person or persons that want to do something cool. You may get returns from that voluntary donation, but you are not legally entitled to the reward in the same way you are entitled to a pre-ordered product or an investment. Anyway, picking up where we left off:
Following the very visible success stories of non-Kickstarter projects like Minecraft and the successful Kickstarter projects like Double Fine Adventure and Wasteland 2 there was something of a gold rush towards crowdfunding. This has led to some fatigue among gamers as around this time projects began appearing in various states of planning and/or completion. With the Double Fine Adventure issues engraved in the collective consciousness and the confidence in the solidity and potential returns somewhat shaken crowdfunding became significantly more difficult. The likes of Sir You Are Being Hunted, Planetary Annihilation, Divinity: Original Sin were spawned around this era however they each had immensely strong pitches, with Divinity: Original Sin probably being one of the strongest. It is in this gold rush era that pitch quality had to really improve and whilst some might argue that the inundation of Kickstarter games was a bad thing that meant nothing got enough attention to get fully funded I’d argue that what it did was improve the quality of the pitches that did get funded.
The gold rush also has its own lessons to teach, primarily with the likes of Godus. Now I’m not big on bashing stuff but my Godus preview was one of the most negative pieces I’ve ever written and it deserved it at the time. Godus was meant to be a new god-game from the father of all God-games; Peter Molyneux. The pitch actually seemed very strong as it had to be in order to stand out in a now saturated crowdfunding market. They had an industry veteran leading a team creating a iteration of an old classic… the Wasteland 2 model. The problem lies in the fact that Peter Molyneux can sometimes make grandiose claims at the best of times and in the Kickstarter environment that’s possibly not the best trait to have. Communication was actually well handled by the Godus team and the project got well funded, but the early releases just seemed weak and really not much fun on the PC. They have since worked on changing and improving the game although I feel like this is damage control of what was a bad first impression. There aren’t a huge number of negative crowdfunded stories, and really the likes of Godus and Double Fine Adventure where expectation were not met appear to be something of a rarity, however they are high profile rarities and have merged in the minds of many with the saturated crowdfunding market to place a stigma on the whole concept regardless of the reality.
Related to the development of crowdfunded games is the appearance of early access. Many crowdfunded games actually use early access as I have mentioned before with the big early successes of community and crowdfunded projects being based around early access (Minecraft for example). In general most crowdfunded games included early access to development and testing builds in their funding tiers, meaning that in addition to the early access based early crowd funding projects there was now a whole host of backer specific early access builds floating around. The concept of early access was introduced wholesale first by Desura with the likes of Project Zomboid among others and then the idea was essentially formalised and popularised when Valve introduced Steam Early Access (capitalised here to distinguish from the general concept). This allowed developers to place in-development games on Steam for purchase with the express caveat that the games were not complete. Early Access provides some significant advantages to developers and potentially for the players, developers get a pre-release income stream and gamers are able to try out early versions of the game they want. There’s a great deal of scepticism among certain loud members of the PC gaming crowd towards early access and Steam Early Access, although much of it could just be their arrogant refusal to accept any form of change despite much of the AAA and traditional models being far from ideal (for example EA). There are some valid concerns over Steam Early Access and how it alters the hoops that developers must jump through to get a game on Steam but that’s not so much a problem with Early Access as it is a general problem with the whole idea of a curated Steam store. Personally I feel that if people really want a curated store they should sell their PCs, abandon openness and choice and buy iPads, but that’s just me.
It’s also worth mentioning that there are early access projects that are not related directly to Steam or Kickstarter specifically and instead rely on their own systems to manage things and their own momentum for publicity. Star Citizen for example, the reawakening of the Wing Commander style of games by Chris Roberts began as a Kickstarter campaign and has expanded massively from their using their own home-built crowdfunding and early access systems. This has been so successful that the project has raised $48 million through the various channels in order to fund continued development. There is also Planetary Annihilation, a game meant to be in the same vein as the Total Annihilation RTS which was a successfully funded Kickstarter and continues to raise funds through other crowdfunding and early access. Planetary Annihilation actually raised some concerns over the convergence points of crowdfunding and early access when their Steam Early Access release was priced according to the appropriate stage of funding tier, placing the price very high in comparison to even a regular AAA title.
The key response to early access complainers is that no-one is forced to buy a game early and it’s nice to have the option available if you want it. From a consumer perspective early access is far preferable to pre-ordering as there is already a tangible return on your payment, you have a far better idea of what you’re getting and you get the satisfying feeling of knowing you’ve helped something get created. For a developer it’s a great way of either funding future development or merely gaining the funding required to finish the project. In much the same way as crowdfunding in general, early access has its problems but ultimately it helps to alleviate the reliance of developers on publishers, which means that we’re more likely to get the game that the developer wanted to make or the community wanted to play and not the game that some misogynist suit-clad market analyst executive thinks would sell best to his imagined demographic of gamers. I know it’s a different discussion but many of the problems involving the portrayal of gender in games can be traced to publishers forcing their imagined gamer demographic on developers. That really is the key to the whole idea, it is stripping the middle man out of the equation and putting the money and communication on a direct channel between the people making the game and the people playing the game. This was possible when games were very small and the community less disparate, then there was the time of the publisher where the community had grown beyond the realms of developer level management however now that time is coming to an end as the internet is providing tools that allow that direct communication to occur again. I will still play some large games made by big studios, a Dishonoured 2 for example would be seriously cool to have but the idea of not having the publisher in the middle screwing things up by injecting their own particular brand of bullshit is very nice to me.
Conclusions are already fairly well drawn by this point; the crowdfunding explosion has calmed somewhat now that the gold rush has raised the standards required in order to make a successful pitch. There has been as reasonable stream of attempted crowdfunding campaigns with some good failing and many bad… well, failing. If an idea sparks the interest of the press it is likely to get funded but that’s far from a sure thing. In terms of early access; with many of the best selling titles available right now being early access (see DayZ) there is not likely to be any significant buck in that trend. If this produces better games, gives the developers the funds they need and gives gamers the chance to try out a game and help in its development then it could prove to be a positive trend in gaming. The whole idea of phasing out publishers is very attractive as it means phasing out the suits that alter the course of gaming in unproductive ways. The idea of linking gamers and game developers (also see ‘gamers’) in a direct communicative and financial channel can only be a good as only the people passionate about games are involved in the creation process, phasing out those who are passionate about other things; money, boats, expensive suits, etc.

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