There’s this show in the UK (and countless other countries) called Dragon’s Den. It’s an interesting show to watch, and I prefer it to all the other gut-wrenchingly depressing panel judge shows purely because at its heart the world of business and invention is infinitely more interesting than someone singing stupid pop songs on a stage with identikit faces and voices.
In case you’re not familiar, the show involves small businesses looking for investment pitching to millionaires, and just like all ‘talent shows’, some are really good, some are really bad. The good ones get fawned over and paraded about as wonderful success stories, where the bad ones are openly mocked and humiliated by the would be investors with ‘clever’ quips and puns related to the bad business idea. “A telephone for dogs? You’re barking mad! I’m out!”
Despite being presented as real business, with real businessmen and real business ideas, there are two factors that betray the fact that Dragon’s Den is ‘just another one of those shows’. One, which David Mitchell sums up quite amazingly on his Soapbox, is that business meetings about possible investment would never involve the potential investor being immensely rude and patronizing to the people looking for investment. This is just a TV thing borne from the culture of having ‘Mr. Nasty the judge’ mocking someone for the public’s entertainment.
The other aspect that makes Dragon’s Den completely unrealistic is the arbitrary rule that if you don’t get what you asked for, you get nothing at all. This is ridiculous, as in a real meeting with investors, the goals could change and the investor may be willing to invest less money, and those looking for backing could then go elsewhere to make up the rest, or reevaluate their goals to meet the adjusted investment value. Real business doesn’t work that way, and it’s been constructed with this arbitrary rule just to make the show more interesting. OH WAIT.
Yes, Kickstarter has arrived, and it’s bringing arbitrary ’all or nothing’ rules to crowd funding, and I think it’s really starting to distort people’s views on success.
Of course, when we started making Project Zomboid, there was no such thing as a UK Kickstarter, and to be honest I’m glad. I suspect Zomboid might never have gotten off the ground if we started it in this climate. It’s risen expectations of both the developers and the funders to levels that are really starting to concern me.
When we announced Project Zomboid, we did so with a bullet-point list of ten or so features we wanted to get in the game, and one single screenshot.
We woke up that morning scared, since we had no money to pay the rent and had no prospects of income, and we took a punt with a blog post (just a little blog post) with some bullet points, one screenshot and a paypal donate button.
When we retired for the night, we did so with about £3,000 in our paypal account. This was huge. This was life changing for us and took us completely by surprise and one of the most wonderful days of my life to date. It was £3,000 more than we were expecting and the rent was taken care of and we were on our way.
Of course we had numerous set-backs, but have been okay since.
Now I know we’re alpha-funded, so it’s a bit different if developers aren’t going that route. But the point still remains. £3,000 didn’t last us long. But by the time we needed more, we’d made more to keep us ticking over. And all this started with a blog post, a few bullet points, a screenshot and a paypal button.
The problem is now, with the success stories of Double Fine and Brian Fargo, Kickstarter has taken its seat as ‘the way to crowd fund’, and with it comes this arbitary Dragon’s Den rule that ‘if you don’t get the amount you ask for, you get nothing at all!’
You may argue that it’s the fault of the developers if they don’t meet this goal, for badly evaluating the ‘worth’ of their project, or the interest their game concept has. But this is something that’s very difficult to evaluate. An idea that should do well may be scuppered by a sub-par pitch, maybe just down to the awkwardness of the developer on camera. The developer may be extremely talented but not have a name that people recognise, and sad to say obviously this does affect their chances of getting Kickstarted. The idea may be niche, but the sort of game that once people played would spread like wild-fire.
If Notch made a Kickstarter for Minecraft, would the money made on Kickstarter mirror the sales the game has had? Not likely, especially if the video just had creative mode — survival mode and red-stone not even a glint in Notch’s eye.
The worst thing though, is this ‘all or nothing’ system means that something which on the face of it should be considered a huge success is instead encouraged to be thought of as a failure. If a Kickstarter has a target of £300,000, and only (only!) makes £250,000. Then you’ve failed. You failure! You loser! People have only offered to donate a quarter of a million pounds because they want to see your game made. How perverse is this?
We were over the moon that we’d made £3,000. But if we started making Zomboid now, and we (and I imagine we would have) launched a Kickstarter for it, would we have picked a target of £3,000? Seems unlikely. We’d have been encouraged to set our sights higher. We’d also have been just another Kickstarter among hundreds, and also the expectation of what we’d need to show to get going would be orders of magnitude bigger.
Anyone who’s seen our Rezzed talk, or heard us stutter through interviews and podcasts, will have a good idea how ill at ease we are at talking in that capacity, and being on camera only makes that 1000 times worse. If we did Zomboid now, and had a screenshot and bullet-point list of features, we would likely get crucified for a poor pitch, and I suspect we’d be lucky to get £3,000, never mind whatever target we would actually set ourselves with artificially inflated expectations of the silly money thrown at Kickstarters.
And if we did make £3,000, but our goal was £10,000, then we would have seen it as a disappointing failure instead of the greatest day ever and the start of the most exciting period of our lives. Even though that £3,000 would and did suffice to getting us going.
I’m not going to name any names, but there is a certain Kickstarter that much deserves to make it, made by a developer who deserves a shot at making it, that is still well short of the goal with the clock ticking down. The amount of money pledged is impressive, and if we’d have made that kind of money in the first few weeks of Zomboid we’d have likely had a heart-attack. The sad thing is that the amount of money it has made would surely help fund development for a long while.
Perhaps not the whole way, but surely to the point where something could be released, or a second round of crowd funding could commence.
But just because the maths was a bit wrong, expectations were a little high, or one in a thousand other reasons outside the developer’s control once that initial goal has been submitted into the system, there is a chance his Kickstarter will fail, and he will get nothing*. The threat of this casts a whole aura of negativity on a situation where there should never have been negativity. “I’ve only reached a figure significantly higher than most people’s annual salary. I’ve failed. Duncan Bannatyne is out, Deborah Meaden is out.”
It makes me sad to see such a large value of money feel like a failure, because of what was once a reality TV show gimmick that’s become a very real factor in the success or failure of many start-up projects on the Kickstarter site. If you fail, that colossal value ultimately means nothing* despite, in very real terms, backers revoking their pledges aside, that being a real bunch of money that would very really help fund a project for a decent amount of time.
I can certainly understand the principle of it. If you don’t get to your goal, then ‘technically’ you have not got the required money you stated you’ll NEED to make the game, and I suppose this is required to protect backers from losing money if a pitch goes absolutely nowhere. This argument is undermined by the fact that there’s nothing to really protect pledgers if the project does get funded. But if you put a value too low, to ensure success, even with stretch goals, having already met your target must have an impact on people’s pledges. I admit, outside the outliers that vastly exceeded their targets, I’ve got little data to back this up but I can’t imagine there’s no impact.
It’s too binary. If someone gets to 95%, or even 50%, then that’s not a Kickstarter that’s dead in the water. That’s a Kickstarter that could fund 95% or 50% of development. In a lot of cases that will probably do the trick. You could argue the solution is to only set a goal at 95% or 50%, but in this crazy world where one Reddit post upvoted by the right people at the right time of day can make such a colossal impact, how can someone possibly predict any of this?
* Of course this is not true. The publicity surrounding the Kickstarter will have brought the game to the attention of many people, and I’m sure a lot of those backers would replicate their pledges in an alpha-fund environment, and I hope he considers this should the Kickstarter not go his way.
** I should clarify that I think crowd funding is a beautiful, important thing that could change the face of all entertainment industries for the better. My issue is purely with that particular aspects of how Kickstarter works.
UPDATE: Well the Kickstarter that nearly didn’t make it did in fact make it, so there was a happy ending to this story after all. But that’s one Kickstarter amongst many that will not make it. The point still stands.