A recent post from Ken Levine on his Facebook page (via Geekparty) detailed the contributions that Ken Levine, the man behind the BioShock series, has made to the gaming world. Oddly enough, I’m not referring to BioShock Infinite or its newly announced DLC; I’m talking about Levine’s generous Kickstarter history. His personal Facebook status, “And that’s 90 kickstarters,” hinted at strong support of the Kickstarter community, and Levine has since confirmed that that number applies only to the last 12 months of his Kickstarting endeavors.
As nice as this is to see—a triple-A developer and studio-head supporting small-time projects—it also raises an interesting question regarding the nature and merit of Kickstarter. Specifically, it draws an obvious parallel to the more common practice of pre-ordering games through a very simple question: Is it “better” to Kickstart or pre-order a game?
Kickstarting campaigns operate on a very simple set of guidelines. As defined on the site itself: “Project creators set a funding goal and deadline. If people like a project, they can pledge money to make it happen.” In addition, it is made expressly clear that “funding on Kickstarter is all-or-nothing—projects must reach their funding goals to receive any money.” What isn’t made clear, however, is what is required of that money if a project reaches its goal.
At face value, this sounds like a fairly solid system. If a project (for the purposes of this article, a game) is crap, surely it won’t be able to garner the support to reach its pledge amount within the deadline. And we see this often enough; plenty of games have missed their goal. In fact, only 44% of all Kickstarter projects actually succeed in acquiring the necessary funds. There’s also been a steady decline in Kickstarter activity in recent months, particularly where video games are concerned. More games are missing the mark now, or simply dropping out, than ever before.
Contrastingly, we’re seeing consistent pre-order activity. As VGchartz’ records show, the top games of 2013 are all seeing sizeable pre-order support. Grand Theft Auto V has already racked up 449,209 pre-orders on Xbox 360 alone, plus another 385,915 on PlayStation 3. Similarly, Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 come in at 186k and 185k respectively—again, on Xbox 360. This trend extends to Tales of Xillia with 121k, Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX with 84k, and the soon-released (and now-reviewed) Pikmin 3 at 60k.
Fundamentally, Kickstarting a game is very similar to pre-ordering it: One way or another, you’re putting your money towards a product that you know very little about. In the case of Kickstarter, however, you’re also actively funding a project that probably wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise. Pre-ordering, of course, only applies to confirmed releases (aside from a few cancellation stories) and is therefore based in consumer benefit. Both practices connote a level of trust as well as an obvious risk: You could unwittingly support a crap product. Just how likely you are to do so is directly related to how projects are portrayed and is often the decisive factor when weighing pre-orders and Kickstarts.
Most pre-orders are locked-in solely because the consumer either wants to secure their copy and get it early or because pre-ordering will net them a fancy little bonus (a skin, beta access, art book, etc.). Claims of pre-ordering to “support the developer” are utterly moot. A product that is already confirmed for release doesn’t gain anything from pre-orders; if anything, you’re just supporting the publisher’s quarterly statements. With that said, we can also assume that nobody would pre-order a bad game even if proper, gimmicky incentive is provided. If the trailers, screenshots, and demos that the public has seen and critiqued thus far unanimously show that the game in question isn’t worth playing, it will become something to avoid. This is why video game journalism exists and is necessary. It’s also a serious problem.
That gamers pre-order a product based off of media and assets hand-picked by its creators is a glaring flaw in pre-ordering as a whole. Rarely do trailers, demos, and screenshots represent a game realistically. That’s why we’re seeing them in the first place: They show off the best parts of the game. Moreover, although developers aren’t completely blindsiding gamers, and gamers still have every option to evaluate a game themselves, the game is presented in a highly tailored and purchase-condoning manner.
This is where Kickstarter holds an enormous advantage over pre-orders. Rather, this is where it could, if handled properly.
Kickstarter projects have to earn pledges in order to exist at all. Games that are up for pre-order are going to release regardless of how many gamers lock in an early copy. This puts a unique pressure on Kickstarter games to sell their product as effectively as possible. Obviously, every game wants positive reception. However, a game on Kickstarter has a greater toolset at its disposal in the way a project’s status and intentions can be updated.
Rockstar Games won’t tell you how X money will improve GTAV’s engine or expedite its development process; Namco isn’t going to show you why Tales of Xillia needed X amount of money in order to succeed; and Activision won’t be breaking down the expenses of Call of Duty: Ghosts for the sake of clarity. Kickstarter projects, however, can do all of this and more. This adds an unrivaled level of directness and accuracy to video game proposals, and, consequently, makes investing safer—or at least easier to justify—for the consumer.
That’s really the issue here, isn’t it; how safe an investment or donation is? No gamer wants to pre-order a game they won’t like, and Kickstarter donors expect their money to be put to good use and yield a quality product. Unfortunately, there is no absolute guarantee to either of these options. However, the fact of the matter is that pre-ordering a game is, more often than not, entirely needless. Most pre-order bonuses become available eventually, and waiting a few days for game reviews to go up greatly aids the decision-making process. Kickstarter, on the other hand, is often the reason that games are made. You’re not paying for your personal benefit; you’re actually helping to build a project. In this producer-based system of benefit, coupled with a number of financial safeguards and the aforementioned avenues of accurate portrayal, Kickstarter can be labeled the safer option.
Readers, what do you think? If given the choice, would you rather Kickstart a project early on or just pre-order it once it’s confirmed for release?