on Apr 14, 2012
This post is probably going to be a little ramble-ific. This Kickstarter business has everyone talking, and I’m getting emails asking me what I think of it, if I’ll be joining in, and what it means for game development. So let’s talk about this.
It was almost exactly a year ago that I got home from PAX and began to get the itch to program a little something, which eventually became Project Frontier. Really, PAX should have the opposite effect. This is not a place to go to follow your dreams as an indie. This is a place to have cold, cruel truths pressed deep into your skull while eating the worst nine-dollar hamburger in existence.
At the indie booths, you’re looking at the super-rare 1% of indie developers who are lucky and tenacious enough to bring a product to market. For every indie showing off a game there are a hundred others who got bored and quit, encountered some insurmountable technology hurdle, realized the prototype wasn’t very fun, or ran out of time / money. A few were lucky enough to be able to see it through to completion, but there’s still quite a bit of culling to take place between this point and signpost labeled “success”. Many will languish and only sell a few units, resulting in a hefty net loss that sends them back to their day job. A few might do well, and sell enough units to pay the bills, although once they divide their profits by their hours worked they’ll end up making less than minimum wage. A couple of lucky ones – the 1% of the 1% – will bring in enough cash to enable them to self-finance another game.
That’s the way it goes. The same is true for a lot of other creative people. Musicians probably have it even worse. (Although thankfully the cost to write a song is a lot less than the cost to make a game.) Heck, I’m thrilled at how warmly my novel was received and I’d be a fool to complain, but nobody is calling me up and offering me $Rowling bucks for the thing. For every Neal Stephenson, Terry Pratchett, and Douglas Adams in the world, there are ten thousand people like me, writing novels while we do something else to pay the bills. It’s tough all over, is what I’m saying.
The point is, when I go to PAX I become aware of just how badly the odds are stacked against anyone hoping to make games independently. But I also feel a bit energized by the enthusiasm of those other creative people. A lot of them are going broke, but they’re having a blast and it’s tempting to dream about the one awesome game idea you’ve got and how much fun it would be to develop. However, I’ve got financial realities keeping me from following these guys down the rabbit hole. I’m not a daring twenty-something like a lot of these kids. I’ve got a wife and kids and a minivan now. I’m about fifteen years past the, “Let’s just do it, we’ll figure out how to pay for it later” stage of life. (In fact, we kind of already did that back in 1995.)
Some people have been nudging me towards Kickstarter. Yes, there are a lot of success stories on Kickstarter these days. Brian Fargo has raised a big pile of money to make Wasteland 2. Tim Schafer is making an adventure game. Al Lowe is raising money to bring pop-culture satire and lowbrow penis jokes to a new generation of people who are probably not old enough to be playing his games. The whole thing is exciting and inspiring, and validates things I’ve been saying for years about how games are designed and funded. (It’s also interesting to go back and read my 2008 post on The PC Golden Age at this point. I have to say, this extra-long console generation has been the best thing to happen to PC games in a long time.)
As much as I appreciate the faith people have in me, I actually think it would be really inappropriate for me to try and do a Kickstarter campaign. In general, people asking for money should have one of two things:
- A famous name with a track record of shipping successful titles, or:
- A great prototype.
The worst pitch in the world is, “Hi, I’m internet-famous and I have a super-neat idea for a game!” There are a LOT of hurdles to bringing a piece of software to market, and “having a good idea” is about the most common thing in the world. Gaming colleges are churning out armies of people who have “great ideas”. Forums are full of ideas. Even on a single AAA design team you’ve probably got more ideas than anyone can put to use. The idea is the easy part. The real challenges are mastering technology, perfecting a game mechanic, maintaining focus, sticking with a project when it bogs down, and then handling all the business challenges once the game itself is complete.
Having said that, I’m really excited about how this might change the industry. As game budgets grew, games needed to change in order to appeal to a wider audience. I love that more people are playing games now, and the “murder simulator” talk has just about dried up. But in the process a lot of the experiences I enjoy were abandoned or “streamlined” to make them palatable to more people. Yes, some of these fifty million dollar games are really impressive, but I still miss those old two million dollar games. This Kickstarter craze might make it possible for us to have the best of both worlds.
Of course, all we’ve proven so far is that the interest is there. We’ll see how Schafer and the rest of them fare in trying to bring the gameplay of 1997 to the world of 2014. Maybe we’ll have a development renaissance. Maybe these teams will get mired in technology and logistical problems. You can’t brag until the game ships.
We won’t know how well it works for another eighteen months or so, but for now I’ve set aside my cynicism and indulged in a few minutes of foolish, unbridled optimism.