Kickstarters, Crowdsourcing, Word of Mouth and Digital Distribution: Should Publishers be Afraid?

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on April 17, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Traditionally, publishers have been responsible for funding and distributing development projects and afterwards deciding how much of their marketing might to expend on promoting the new game. This allows them to act as gatekeepers, granting them first and in most cases final say on what games get developed. This tremendous power sculpts the game industry as we see it today: “hit” focused, sequel-heavy, IP-intensive with all games trending towards broader appeal of an assumed market base of young adult to adult white males. However, emerging technology and social trends stand poised to challenge this model.

Making a game is an expensive process, but development is only half of what gets a game to the store shelf. With this in mind, the first and biggest step towards decentralizing and dismantling this process began with digital distribution. This process is already so well-received (and expected!) on the PC that many gamers don’t even bother with media drives any longer, especially as this becomes an option not just for new games, but for those good old games as well.

Indie developers have massively capitalized on this as well. Rather than relying on difficult to monetize file sharing sites, they can easily distribute their games using these well-recognized channels. Steam in particular has been fairly good to its Indie constituents, embracing and promoting both individual games (on the “new release” banner) but also providing an outlet for grouped Indie efforts like the Bundles. These developers in turn use word of mouth and their own bundle initiatives to strum up excitement and interest in their games. Minecraft, for example, does very well for itself despite a lack of heavy advertising.

With the new consoles poised to take advantage of this, hopefully being built from the ground up to support and embrace digital distribution, things may only improve from here on.

Promoting one’s work has become more complex yet offers more opportunities than ever before. As developers begin reducing intermediaries between themselves and the consumers they seek to court, their relationship with gamers and the goodwill they foster becomes incredibly important. They need gamers to like them. How can they achieve that without ad saturation and hype?

Most successful efforts have focused on showing that you’re a decent human being that not only cares about the product you’re producing, but for the person buying it as well. Such developers are easy to find and approach online via their website, message boards, blogs and twitter. Fan comments are responded to. Community trends make their way into games as features or little in-jokes. Word of mouth from this carries the whiff of authenticity as friends, forumites and twitterers begin telling you about this game that you have to look at. Heartwarming news stories where developers reach out to special fans are especially heartwarming, as are moments when the developers support community projects like making a wonderland for a dying six year old fan.

Moments like these build upon social interest and momentum to carry the story. No where is anyone saying you should buy these games in these stories, but suddenly you might be aware of a game you didn’t know about, for instance. Control over sculpting an image or hype has been taken away, leaving companies to build their own image through their own actions.

All of this is well and good, but money needs to come from somewhere. Games can and often are made at a first venture from one or a few dedicated individuals but even as great as everything above sounds, it relies on contracts with digital distribution services, web hosting and maybe even a computer to put it all on. Larger projects such as console releases require even more capital. Without a publisher paying the bills, through lack of interest or obscurity, Kickstarter projects have become more popular. Not just for smaller titles and endeavors, but major projects like sequels to games that have been mothballed for more than a decade.

Especially since, you know, the Psychonauts thing.

This is a reversal of gaming’s economic model if ever there were one. Previously, after all the funding has produced something that might get released, we start pre-ordering and pre-buying the game. That said, most development costs are recouped in the first few weeks of a game’s release, with sales petering out significantly after the first month or so.

As these projects often offer the game itself (whenever it is finished) as a donation incentive for the least amount contributed, we see something else: pay for a game you’d like to see, and that specific game will eventually land in your hands.

We aren’t buying an HD remake out of the sheer hope that someone out there will interpret the numbers we hope we’re making into thinking that a sequel is a good idea. We are paying a developer the money they’d need to make the game in the first place. Rewarding them for an idea and the audacity to ask. In these high profile cases, we’ve answered loudly and in excess of anything they thought they’d secure.

These cases, however, result in (the perception of) an increased obligation to fans. This loops into the crowdsourced reliance as above. Gamers have made it clear that they’re willing to pay and reward — generously — developers they like making games they’ve hoped for. They’ve done it by buying their games, now they do it by funding them. It’s up to the developers to decide how much that should impact development.

For my personal opinion, this is most definitely a good thing. However, I do think publishers play a vital role in the grand scheme of things: that of an editor. Everyone needs an editor, someone to reel back the creator when they’ve become too lost in their work, to remind them what works and what doesn’t. Some of the worst stuff I’ve read came from authors and writers I’ve liked that suddenly “freed” themselves of this kind of oversight. I’m interested in seeing whether an open conversation with fans and the obligation of a kickstarter can produce the same effect.

To answer my opening question: no, they shouldn’t be afraid. What I think this has done to the landscape is make it so more ideas have the ability to come to fruition. Publishers will still come into their own for big gaming events and large AAA titles, but we’ve taken the onus away from them as far as deciding what new stuff we might see. As this circles around, they might brave some of their older and less used IPs or make use of less-seen genres. There doesn’t have to be a loser in this fight.

  1. Crowdfunding seems a great source of revenue for new and start-up projects, and a great way to resuscitate classic and neglected ideas that still have a place. I do have to agree, of course- it’s not going to threaten the publisher or the triple-A title anytime soon.

    I have to disagree with your assessment of the vitality of a publisher’s role… somewhat. I actually do agree that a good editor is helpful and sometimes even necessary. I have little doubt that Nintendo spends a great deal of time making sure their games come out just right, and my understanding is that last year’s L.A. Noire only even saw release because the publisher finally got involved and got the game’s slow-as-molasses development on track.

    However, most publishers don’t seem to have the artistic integrity of a work in mind when they do the editing you speak of, but rather the potential profitability. There’s enough going about of content being axed for DLC (Capcom has rapidly become the worst offender), while rumors have gone about (and they may just be that) suggesting Mass Effect 3’s stilted endings were the product of the game being rushed to make its advertised release date- of course, I’ve also heard enough supporting the notion that the project director is solely to blame, in which case we still don’t have a publisher getting involved.

    There’s a fine line between making something marketable and making something so marketable that it loses its integrity. I recall some of Joss Whedon’s comments back in Ye Olde Fireflye days about what Fox wanted him to do with the show… and some of the suggestions he felt were good, while some would have completely missed the point (of course, if you want worse, compare Dollhouse’s intended pilot to what actually aired).


    That aside, I’ve been looking at crowdsourcing for the last few months now, and I plan to put something up (either Kickstarter or Rockethub- the latter seems a bit safer, but Kickstarter is rapidly becoming the place to be) before the year is over. It’s a bit scary in a way, since I can’t look at it as the person who can get excited about something, but as the one who needs other people to. But, at the same time, I don’t want to open for donations until I have something that’s ready and worth showing. I’ve sifted through what other people have put up in the past, and for all the big and exciting projects you’ve talked about, I’ve seen some small ones that are doomed to remain small, as much because they have almost nothing to show.

  2. The success of a kickstarter is going to be based on the inverse relationship of the people doing the showing and what they have to show.

    If you or the property you’re working on is well-known, you need relatively little in the way of actual content showing; the big three that I linked had little more than generic artwork topic banners, maybe a video of the Big Name doing a talking head thing.

    All of the other projects that seemed to have done well with Kickstarter have much more by way of material already — the funding seems to be to finish the project or secure more content. These people had gameplay videos, trailers, tons of artwork, Q&As and so on.

    People with their hand out with nothing to show but a promise that they might make a game are obviously not going to do very well, no matter the strength of their ideas. But then, I could have told anyone that a decade ago: modders forums were full of job ads where a “creative director” was looking for a coder, modeller, animator and texture artist to bring a vision to life (for free, of course). Projects that were half done were by comparison much easier to get behind.

    No, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that setup.

    I’ve heard discussions about Firefly’s original intent and I do actually think that what we got (not how it was aired or cancelled, but the material itself) was better than the original concept.

    Editing isn’t a one-sided process. It is a discussion with give and take. The people footing the bill deserve to have some say in what’s being produced — it’s their fiduciary responsibility, after all. It’s the creator’s job to please them while maintaining their vision — if they can’t do that, sometimes it’s the editor’s fault for being too stringent, but much of the time it is actually the fault of the creator. Happy mediums can be achieved.

    I think EA gets a bad wrap. I don’t think Bioware cut anything out for its ending for the release date. Think of it this way: would three months have mattered? That game went gold months ago.

    Capcom, on the other hand, cut half of SF X T’s content out to make the PSV release “better.”

  3. I’d posit that blaming a creator “much of the time” doesn’t exonerate the editing party. If something goes off-base from the original proposed concept then it may behoove the editing party to rein the material in. Just as much though, I’ve heard too many stories of studios placing too much oversight on something, numerous horror stories of clearly out of touch executives who in the interest of making something marketable miss the thing that might actually make it appealing (which, ironically, will tend to create something that could have a better legacy… which would increase its marketability in the longterm).

    I do hear these stories about movie/tv studios more often than game developers though. That I don’t hear about how much the publisher infringed on the creative process of a developer may say as much about how little the creative process (especially for story) is given attention in game development.

    And, for what it’s worth, I do agree with you on EA. I think they’re imperfect (to say the least) but I also think their worst traits are blown far out of proportions. I can’t really go into the ME3 ending (since I have no clue if you’ve seen it yet or how much you know about it) but from what I’ve heard and observed, it seems it’s the product of the series director going into la-la-land. The thing that disturbs me more is the question of how out of touch the company as a whole is that it came to pass; the people in charge of Bioware should certainly have been aware of what was going on, and sometimes I can’t help but wonder what the devs really think/feel versus whether or not it’s just them towing the BS company line.

  4. Whenever I think of games and magical superior cut content I think of RE1.5, a version of RE2 that we’ve been assured was absolutely horrid derivative cash-in drivel on multiple occasions — by a company whose business model relied on such things no less.

    On the flip side, you have stuff like KOTOR 2, which had the ending chopped right off to make the Christmas 2004 release date. But here’s the thing: Obsidian is one of those developers that should never be given free reign because they are colossal fuck ups.

    Just like how Peter Molyneaux is one of those guys that would gladly spend the rest of his life developing one game.

    The fact that Fable 1 and KOTOR 2 were crap (in some regards) illustrates my point very clearly.

    Television shows … well, that’s not an area I know too much about. I can imagine this bizarre mindset where you have a discussion while making the pilot or first few episodes, only to suddenly have to renegotiate everything again on every episode after that if someone decides it isn’t a hit. But once it is…

    Firefly was never really given a chance. X-Files, on the other hand, gave Chris Carter a platform to fuck around and never get to the point for ten years when someone should have sat down and forced him to write something coherent for the metaplot.

    I stand by my general assertion: it is not nor ever has been a writer’s job to be super creative in an unchallenged arena, but when it happens (due to fame, blind faith, et al) quality is collateral damage to “true vision.” It’s very easy to get excited about the postgame show where writers talk about all the cool things they wanted to do, but at this point you’re comparing your disappointment with an actual product with something that doesn’t exist.

    That doesn’t completely invalidate that — some ideas are just that cool — but it’s worth keeping in mind.

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