By Brad Jones
Note: The opinions expressed in this editorial are not necessarily the views or opinions of Cliqist.com.
Greg, we need to talk. I hate to put you on blast like this, but it’s time we had a serious chat about crowdfunding. It seems to me that you have this idea that there’s a level of formality that separates crowdfunding and an upturned cap sat at the feet of a busker. I don’t think that’s right. Crowdfunding has the potential to change the way that video games—and dare I say it, entertainment—is manufactured. However, it won’t live up to that potential if we keep using Kickstarter and crowdfunding interchangeably.
Over the past few years, crowdfunding has boomed. Similarly, Kickstarter has rose to the top of the crop of sites that offer crowdfunding services, amongst places like IndieGoGo and RocketHub. However, it seems to me that ‘Kickstarter’ and ‘crowdfunding’ have become interchangeable terms. The definition of crowdfunding has come to mean a campaign run through one of these sites. To my mind, that is simply not true.
Crowdfunding, in its current form, is in a nascent stage of its life cycle. People are wary of crowdfunding, wary of paying for a product before it is in their hands—and quite rightly so. For this reason, sites like Kickstarter act as a ‘middle-man’ between the customer and the creator. However, their role in the process is minimal and, perhaps, superfluous. When you use any of these sites, you are forewarned that your money is a donation and unforeseen circumstances may well arise. They will not step in if your investment doesn’t pay off.
This is because crowdfunding is all about trust. Do you trust this person or these people to take your money and make it into a product worth paying for? Paying through a site like Kickstarter helps soothe any worries that your might have for a moment, but it’s merely a pat on the head. Your contract is with the creator, and it’s entirely between you and then.
Sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have become the public face of crowdfunding, but they are not the be-all-and-end-all of crowdfunding. In fact, they are simply the mainstream brand of something that was happening independently. When you think about video games and crowdfunding, you might immediately think of something like Broken Age as the flag bearer, but perhaps a better example would be Minecraft.
Minecraft didn’t use a service like Kickstarter. It didn’t even refer to itself as a crowdfunded video game. However, it’s difficult to argue that it was anything else. It launched as a feature-light version of itself, available for purchase with the promise that, should you put your money down early, you’d get the full game at some point. The scope of the game got bigger as more people got on board and the money flowed in. In fact, all manner of licensed apparel, toys and everything else you can imagine was released—not unlike the backer rewards that you see on most Kickstarter campaigns. To me, Minecraft is the model for a crowdfunded video game. Its growth was natural, its fans were kept satiated throughout and it has been incredibly creatively and financially successful.
But, all those early adopters had to trust Notch, the creator of Minecraft, to create a product worth buying. The potential was there, but as we paid money directly into his PayPal account in those early days, there was little to nothing we could have done should the product been inferior in the end. Trust is integral to the crowdfunded experience, because crowdfunding is the natural response to an era when any sort of digital media was fair game to download freely and illegally.
For too long, people took advantage of the internet to get something for nothing. That sort of model is, obviously, broken—if no money comes in once the product was out, the next product won’t be made. We are now living in an era of digital patronage; we will pay the artists way by giving them the money ahead of time to support themselves whilst they create. This isn’t limited to video games, but their technological basis means that they are apt to be amongst the first that jump on board of this system.
Seeing crowdfunding as a form of patronage illustrates why services like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo will, to my mind, be short-lived. At the moment, people feel reassured by a middle-man, but once people are used to crowdfunding, why wouldn’t they want to deal with the creators themselves, directly?
Tying crowdfunding as a whole too directly to specific services like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo is, at best, reductive—but going forward will only prove to be more and more outdated. At the risk of mythologizing crowdfunding, I don’t think that it’s too much of an over-exaggeration that it has the potential to change the way that people pay for media of any kind for the better. It is the start of what could be a huge shift in the way that art is created, and to me the ideal outcome is that I can pay an artist that I appreciate and trust in the hope that their work will continue. The crowdfunding services of today are an important step on the road to that ideal, but they are far from the whole spectrum of the continually shifting, constantly evolving concept of crowdfunding. Yes, Broken Age is an example of crowdfunding having run a campaign on Kickstarter. However, so is Minecraft, even though it raised its money independently—it’s still a game that was developed with funds contributed by consumers to ensure that it did indeed get made.
So, Greg, I hope I’ve made myself clear. Please don’t think that this is a personal attack on you—although next time, who knows—but trying to put crowdfunding in a box is doing no one any favours. Crowdfunding is currently in its awkward teenage phase where everything is strange and alien and no one’s really sure what to say about it or to it. We need to give it some space to grow, see where it goes without trying to reign it in too much. It could end up being something great, like an astronaut. Or, it could end up being a street cleaner. It’s impossible to tell where it’s going and, as such, I don’t think it makes sense to try and define its limits just yet.