When we discuss video games as a audience, we are very much focused on the finished product – the thing we actually play and get involved with. It seems a bit obvious to write it down at first – as consumers, it’s what we pay for, and as participants within this mass medium that we call gaming, it is what we discuss with our peers on a regular basis. Also obviously when I say that, I don’t mean we don’t talk about other facets of game development – the people that produce these works, the companies responsible for publishing them, and the tools people use to build these things are all still a part of this process. It seems interesting to me that for all the money we put towards participating in the medium, it is not a massive point of discussion how this money is actually being put to use.
I make this claim because of the latest debacle coming from Double Fine Studios. For those who are unaware, they have recently stated that their latest community funded project, Spacebase DF-9, will make an attempt at the Olympic world record breaking pole vault distance, going from Alpha 6 status to Version 1.0 in only a month, at which point they will cease to support the project any longer. Squinting a little bit longer at the issue also illuminates the fact that many, many promised things are not being put into the game, eschewing these tassels and bobbin things to get the drapery out of the Persian rug emporium as quickly as possible, so to speak. The conclusion to the post was essentially thus: we ran out of money and time, ‘here’s your game, gl;hf, sayonara’.
We still cool? We still cool.
Now I want to emphasize before people start reading this with the wrong impression – I am not discussing the ethics of Double Fine Studios. Many people seem to be wrapped up in that particular honeypot, with the added evidence that pointed to similar instances of poor money and time management being seen in previous releases Brutal Legend and Broken Age. Arguments have been made for and against Double Fine’s continuing trends of shooting high and hitting low, almost to Molyneaux-esque proportions, and I feel my input would be the equivalent of adding to the spitoon. What I would like to explore is how Double Fine got to this point in particular – how exactly did they get the money to even consider surviving as an indie company, let alone an indie company that pulls stunts like this? Surely, that money came from somewhere, right? It didn’t come from nothing, get spent on mountains of hookers and blow and then return to nothing.
This is the most peculiar part of the argument for me. We, the consumers, gave them this money – through KickStarter, through IndieGoGo, and through Steam Early Access. They got this enormous pile of money from us all based on a few pieces on concept art and a list of promises so long your local MP would blush. No other media does this, not to any notable degree at any rate. Films, literature and television wouldn’t dream of asking their participants to chip some loose change to get their project off the ground. It is a practice that is exclusive to our medium – paying for an unfinished project, and in some cases a project that hasn’t even started. In theory, this crowd-sourcing culture seems ludicrous in its design. So why does it even exist?
The most obvious answer is expense. Video game development is expected to hit a total revenue of $100 billion dollars of revenue in 2014. That is, without any hyperbole, a shit ton of Monet; it is no wonder why people want a slice of that pie. Alas, the old adage holds true enough: you have to spend money to make money, and the costs of making an AAA game have quadrupled in the past fifteen years. But what of indie devs that have broken away from the oppression of the steel mill of mainstream, next-gen developers? Sadly, much, much worse. People have poured tens of thousands of dollars of personal savings with very little payoff – unless your game turns out to be the next Minecraft or Cocaine Simulator 20XX, you can expect to see that money you started with, if not more, turn into an equivocal amount of debt. With those statistics firmly in hand, it is clear that unless you are enormously rich, enormously talented and/or enormously lucky, the bar for entry into the video game industry is staggeringly high.
Fuck sponsors, get money
Only the passionate or the ignorant would ever dare set foot into this industry willingly. The former is what these indie developers rely on to remain alive. Kickstarter and sites of that ilk are the indie developer’s Dragon’s Den: a place where plucky underdogs pitch their ideas to the consumer, that beast of a critic that he/she is, and just maybe get the funds to make their dreams a reality. Yet therein lies another problem – taking consumer trust and turning it into a commodity. The game is sold before it goes gold, and the trust that was once in the hands of the consumer now lies with the developers to meet these expectations. Only the most passionate of fans would put their money into an Early Access project and rightly so: it is an investment to the most nebulous degree, and something any reasonable businessman would walk away from right away. To fail to deliver on promises of Early Access investments is a failing on the part of both parties: the developer for abusing the trust of the consumer, and the consumer for even considering throwing money at a venture as fickle and unpredictable as indie video game development.
The question of the moment should not be if Double Fine Studios used this money poorly, or even the value of the trust of the consumers in this instance. This is an opportunity to examine the systems that make crowd-sourcing what it is, and how we can reestablish this skewed power dynamic that favors the developer. Granted, it didn’t help that Tim Schafer had a portfolio to his name that would make any video game critic send golf claps in his general direction. That being said, the evidence against Double Fine is substantial. Brutal Legend came under scrutiny for its pathetic financial planning and failure to commit to any milestones by Activision CEO Bobby Kotick. Broken Age broke every expectation out of the park and earned ten times more than their initial Kickstarter goal, and even with that extra money, they were forced to split the game into two acts, the first an effort to fund the second. These instances expose a major flaw in the act of crowd-sourcing: once the investment is made, the consumers have no security. In any other business, if a company does not produce work to the standard that is set by the investors, those investors pull the plug. In this type of crowd-sourcing, it is the equivalent of giving them the keys to the power grid – unless you change the systems that these indie developers make money, they can do with it what they will.
Let me emphasize this as strongly as possible: in an industry where the developers are dependent on the popularity and loyalty of its fans to put money towards their efforts and to make sure they continue to exist, it is crucial that the majority of power remains in the hands of the consumers. The implications of the abuse of crowdsourcing are dire: without warning, a developer can simply turn on their heels and leave a project to die, on the grounds of lack of time/money/fucks, etc. Consider this hypothetical scenario: if Double Fine had taken that $3m that they had crowd-funded for Broken Age, spent six months developing it, then cancel it in the same way Spacebase DF-9 was cancelled, they would be free to divert those funds elsewhere to support many smaller projects that could set them up for life. While many will argue that this is tantamount to suicide for a company, people like Notch and Nguyễn Hà Đông have proven it only takes one mega-hit to set someone up for life. This is a worst-case scenario, but a cataclysmic one. A system that can profit in any way from the abuse of the investors and their trust should not ever exist. Period.
Fuck no. And fuck you for even asking.
This is not to say that the culture of crowd-sourcing is entirely negative. If anything, it is a unique idea with the potential of closing the gap between consumers and developers to create a more open environment of communication that leads to better trust from the community and better ideas from the developers, which will all lead to better games being made. But for all of its benefits, the system is nigh on exploitative for the consumer, and puts too much power in the hands of the developers to earn money for little or no work. Patreon is an excellent example of how this major flaw is addressed, working on funding for the people making the work and not the actual project itself. The moment their content dips in quality, people can stop pledging money to the person. Their livelihood then becomes a matter of co-dependence: the content creator need the money from the consumers who offer their assistance in exchange for the quality of their content.
Of course, as consumers we must always be aware that at any point our trust can be violated by these people even with all of these systems in place. While this can be something of a depressing thing to keep in mind, it must be said that these businesses have nothing without their audiences. Games are there to be bought, and if the video game crash of 1983 is anything to go by, a big enough mistake can cause an entire company to implode. The simple fact of the matter is video games are fucking expensive to make, and it comes down to us as to who sees our money: the AAA developers who we have supported for their consistence in delivering high-quality content, or the indie developers who may just steer us into waters unchartered. It all hinges on trust – it is crucial that these systems never dilute how powerful that trust can be in making or breaking our medium.