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Why transparency is one of Kickstarter’s greatest assets

5 Feb 2013  by   Peter Parrish
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If 2012 was the year in which Kickstarter established a new model for PC games development, 2013 will be the year that the model really proves itself. A few success stories have appeared already. Games like FTL, Chivalry: Medieval Warfare and Project Giana have emerged from the process in a healthy state and received critical acclaim.

The majority of Kickstarter-aided games released so far have been just that: titles that were already some way through development, aided by a little extra public cash. This year, we should see the release of several high-profile games which were started from scratch (or close to it.) Wasteland 2, Double Fine Adventure and Shadowrun Returns, to name drop a familiar few, should all appear in 2013.

That these games exist at all is largely thanks to the deep pockets of the general gaming public, but what makes the development of these titles unusual and fascinating is how much of the process is being openly shared.

Wildman

When I spoke to Chris Taylor last week about his Wildman project, that message came through load and clear. “The exciting thing about Wildman was we were going to be able to run a project very openly and very honestly, and provide people an unprecedented level of visibility into the process,” he told me.

He’s far from alone in that thought. Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure was perhaps the stand-out title to legitimise Kickstarter as a means to finance, if not mega-budget, then at least moderate-budget titles. Like Taylor, Schafer has a lot of praise for the system, crediting it with making him “unafraid of being open.”

“The Kickstarter thing and the documentary that we’re doing with the Kickstarter has just taught me that there’s nothing to be afraid of,” he told Venturebeat back in December. “You release your stuff out. You show a piece of concept art that may or may not be in the game. It doesn’t matter … People get on your side more, not get on your side less.”

When Brian Fargo released Wasteland 2‘s design document to the public, he did it with a rhetorical flourish in praise of transparency.

“I can’t imagine a better way for Wasteland 2 to be created. We have your trust and a symbiotic relationship that will have us learn from each other. We are not afraid of the transparency of our process and thinking and intend to share it along the way.”

Developers, those who’ve really embraced the Kickstarter system, love this new-found freedom.

Wasteland 2

Fargo’s inXile team have even gone so far as to embark on an experiment in user-created art assets. Periodically, those who are interested in contributing 3D models are invited to submit their efforts to the Wasteland 2 team. Any that are selected receive in-game credit and (an unspecified) payment for their work. Even if you don’t make the cut, your work is still up on the Unity store page for other developers to make offers on at a later date.

This arrangement gives people the chance to be involved with the game on a level beyond basic finance, as well as a chance to prove their artistic talents on the stage of a major project. It’s not just helping a game come to fruition, it could (at a slight stretch) be the first step in a 3D modeling career. If not that, then an extra bullet point on a CV.

For a small development team, it’s a great way to alleviate some of the workload.

While few Kickstarters have taken their backer involvement to quite this point, the most successful engage their audience with discussion about design decisions. Obsidian’s Project Eternity pumped out 26 updates during the course of its fundraising and has put out another 14 since. The latest is a piece by George Ziets about the process of creating a convincing Pantheon of gods for the RPG, and the one before it dealt with in-depth mechanics like attack resolutions, damage types and cooldowns.

Both updates conclude with forum links, encouraging people to discuss what they’ve seen and read. On those threads, Obsidian team members give further explanation for their design choices, field questions from backers and toss around ideas that could improve the game. Before Kickstarter, this stuff would never have been shared with people outside the development team, let alone been open to public discussion and possible changes.

Project Eternity

Chris Taylor has been learning to his cost that absolute clarity is key to getting a Kickstarter successfully launched. Even now, some people seem to be under the impression that Wildman is somehow related to the MOBA genre, rather than being a mix of action-RPG and Real Time Strategy with a clear single player focus.

“I think maybe the first video we released did a poor job of explaining the game details … We got off the starting blocks poorly.” he says. “We have to take all of the blame for not putting together a really comprehensive video on the way the game is going to play.”

Luckily, the Kickstarter format allows for regular updates, and Taylor’s team have been putting out explanatory videos for the past few days. But first impressions are hard to break, and if the pitch seems muddy or unclear to begin with it seems to be a difficult perception to overcome. Wildman faces an uphill struggle to reach its $1.1 million goal.

David Braben’s Elite: Dangerous got off to a similarly slow start, lacking even a video pitch to begin with. That project made it in the end, thanks to a lengthy campaign period of 60 days and a major boost from Chris Roberts, but suffered from the initial lack of information offered to the public.

It perhaps takes some developers a little time to adapt to this new model. They’re used to details of their own games being trickled out by an external marketing company, and publisher NDAs restricting any meaningful discussion.

“When you have a corporation or when you have large businesses that are knocking on your door talking to you about potential partnerships, the first things you sign are an NDA,” Taylor says.

Elite Dangerous

Consider another story from last week.

It became increasingly clear on Monday (28 Jan) that the Disney-owned studio Junction Point, opened by Warren Spector in 2004, was being shut down. Brian Fargo (oddly enough) had posted on twitter wishing employees well with the job hunt, and other accounts that appeared to belong to former Junction Point employees indicated the same thing.

Disney stonewalled all attempts to confirm the (by this point fairly obvious) news until the following day. To date, the company still can’t be bothered to confirm or deny whether the PC version of Epic Mickey 2 still exists. Maybe it’s cancelled. Maybe it isn’t. Telling people would apparently just be an inconvenience.

Larger publishers do deserve a tiny droplet of sympathy for their control-freak like hoarding of information, however. Most are trapped within a system beholden to shareholder value, where the manner and timing of certain announcements really do matter. Take-Two’s stock price dipped by 12% when GTA V’s (delayed) release date was revealed last week. If the announcement hadn’t been as carefully stage managed as it no doubt was, the damage may have been more severe.

Kickstarter, though, is free of such base concerns. No-one loses when developers on a project share thoughts and information with backers. The more openness, the better.

Kickstarter

There are dangers, of course. No system is perfect. Most major Kickstarted games have had to negotiate through periods of backer disappointment at certain updates or decisions. Opening your designs up to feedback runs the risk of a project being railroaded by the loudest and most intransigent voices, but developers will be well aware of this problem and most will be able to steer around it.

When used to its full potential, Kickstarter allows developers to have useful conversations with the project’s backers. Conversations that can shape the game, inform or enlighten people to the nature of game design, and avoid the peripheral, empty hype that accompanies so much pre-release marketing.

Thanks to this model, I can nerd myself senseless to Josh Sawyers mechanics-based videos on Project Eternity, see Chris Taylor show the Wildman world why he self-describes as “a nuclear bomb of emotion,” and get a look inside Tim Schafer’s thought processes more often than is perhaps healthy. That’s true transparency. Developers being themselves, inviting us into their world to see what Kickstarter funds are (or would be) spent on.

I’ll take that over the stodgy gruel of teaser trailers and crumbs of information publishers deem safe enough to sweep off the table in our direction, every single time.

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  1. Pria

    I’m with your Peter I would take the transparency every time and I like the ability to help finance a game that appeals to me.

    Kickstarter allows the gaming community to shape the industry a little. If what is revealed initially attracts a flurry of investment but as time goes on and more is revealed the game doesn’t look as engrossing, fun or expansive than the investment will dry up. The community will be fairly vocal when a game goes off track. Of course when the target is reached and the backers’ banks are debited there’s no going back.

    February 6, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    1. Esmie

      Have there been any projects that have started but the have changed the game so much like dumbing it down or quite radical changes that have really pissed off the backers?

      February 6, 2013 at 8:08 pm

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