The Lunar Colony development team recently announced that they are terminating work on their project. I poked my head into the comments with that same morbid curiosity of a disaster tourist. Usually, when a Kickstarter can’t deliver, backers tend to become a pack of bloodthirsty keyboard warriors threatening to sue/murder/pee-in-the-general-direction-of the developers. Not this time, the comment section is so incredibly civil, it’s like viewing an alien world. I asked myself, “Why? Why aren’t backers angry?” and decided to investigate.
To give you some background information, Lunar Colony is an isometric building simulation game where you colonise space. It ran an amazing campaign back in 2014 and received more than ten times it’s $500 goal. Since its launch, the project has been regularly updated, with each update seemingly showing steady progress. I often say that updates are key to good backer developer relationships, but is that what the lack of anger boils down too? It is true that if I back a project and the developers keep me updated on progress, I don’t feel especially angry when it fails. This is especially true when the death is a long and drawn out ordeal and I’m sitting there reading updates about how miserable life has become for the developers. I suppose in a way regular updates make us feel more empathetic toward developers.
When the developers issued an apology and explain they had been made homeless, backers still ripped into them.
We can contrast this to the Dr. McNinja Kickstarter. This Kickstarter went silent for about 2 years after they hit trouble. Before that, they had been updating fairly regularly, but their absence fostered resentment. It reached such a point that even when the developers issued an apology and explain they had been made homeless, backers still ripped into them. Later they tried to launch a second Kickstarter and were slammed in the comments, not just by backers but also by the virtue signalling Chris Hastings who after gaining a large sum of money from the project wanted to distance his involvement by kicking the developers while they were on the ground.
Dr. McNinja obviously made enemies with its absence of updates, but in the end, the reason given seems more valid than Lunar Colony’s. The Lunar Colony developers essentially said ‘It’s been rescheduled multiple times already, I no longer have the money to continue it, bye” which isn’t all that different from Dr. McNinja but lacks the distress they expressed. So what other reason could there be for such a chilled reaction to Lunar Colony’s termination? Well, I found something interesting. The ratio of Veteran Kickstarter users vs newbies.
245 people backed Lunar Colony and only 12 of them were new to Kickstarter, the majority were serial backers. I scanned through the profiles and saw that nearly all of the backers had at least backed ten projects, but many had backed between 200-600 I even saw a guy who’d backed 1100 Kickstarters. So how does that 0.4% of new backers compare to Dr. McNinja? Well, Mcninja had 284 backers, 112 of which were new to Kickstarter. Most of the returning customers had only back between 20-30 projects apart from outliers who backed about 1800 etc. About 40% of their backer force were new to Kickstarter and unaccustomed to failure, leading to a huge backlash.
Lunar Colony offered refunds, but many of its backers expressed that they just wanted to help and didn’t want a refund. A theory had already started to form in my head so I did a little research experiment. I started scanning through the profiles of commenters on failed Kickstarters making sure to take into account what they had backed before backing each project. And for some comments making crude estimates as to where on their Kickstarter timeline they said these things. I wish I had more time to test more profiles but out of the ones I managed to go through I noticed a trend.
New Kickstarter users (backing between 1-10) tended to be the most vitriolic commenters, threatening to sue and generally using bad language. Backers who backed more than 300 projects tended not to comment, though there were a number of exceptions. Backers in the 100-300 range tended to be empathetic in general and less angry, they often seemed less interested in refunds. It seems to me that the more experience users had with Kickstarter the kinder to developers they would be.
I’ve been thinking about this information all weekend. Is it possible that Kickstarter teaches us to be more empathetic? Or is it just that we become trained to accept the bitter taste of defeat that we are too apathetic to be angry? To me, my little bit of research seems to show that expectation plays a large role in the attitudes people have toward developers. Even before this project got me interested, I noticed a trend that backers who had only previously supported the spiritual successors of Kickstarter (Bloodstained, Shenmue, Mighty No.9, Yooka–Laylee) always seemed less than mannerly. It has dawned on me that despite Kickstarter’s clear “we are not a shop” label, many people still feel entitled to what they backed. I don’t think there is anything terribly wrong with that other than it misses the point of Kickstarter.
Kickstarter is a community where we come together and support things we love even if they might be commercial failures. How else do we get the new flight simulator or PS Vita game these days? And the uncertainty is part of the thrill, watching that story unfold, being able to talk to devs. It’s the journey and not the destination they say. I recently backed a project for a people funded newspaper and watching those numbers add up and break Kickstarter records was incredible. I always assumed I was an outlier when it came to Kickstarter, nearly always feeling sorry for failed projects. I put it down to the fact that I ran a Kickstarter campaign that failed twice, I now see that simply being invested in the community is enough to feel empathy for creators and that I am not alone.
I leave it to you to decide: Do Kickstarter projects help teach us empathy?