Are crowdfunded projects being given a free ride away from criticism?

When Kickstarter developers come begging

Before I get into this, let me start by saying that Kickstarter has been a revelation for the game industry, and a positive one.

Developers are able to get their niche projects off the ground, and it continues to prove a great avenue of funding for small indies that lack the funds to fully develop their games or for a medium-sized studio whose project has been blanked by publishers but still has a small audience to cater for.

Kickstarter also breaks down some of the barriers between the consumer and the developer, with consumers now having a direct hand in – and an emotional connection with – the success of a project. Developers will often respond quickly to questions and join in on lively discussions from contributors with the single goal of improving the project for all to enjoy.

There are of course failures, and while it would be easy to simply pick up on that very real concern, something I believe Kickstarter should take more responsibility for, this blog piece is to discuss how developers treat Kickstarter and their symbiotic relationship with journalists.

Drum up some press for us, would you?

One developer that recently took to Kickstarter looking for $1.1 million is Gas Powered Games. The developer has just laid off most of its staff, with the studio close to shutting down completely, and it appears completely reliant on its crowdfunding campaign for action RPG Wildman to stay in business. These facts only emerged after the company took to Kickstarter and raised more than $200,000.

Two separate e-mails from two Gas Powered Games PRs sent out to presumably all game journalists this morning and this afternoon really riled me, and made me question further the state of Gas Powered Games, its Kickstarter project, and mine and other journalists’ role in promoting crowdfunding campaigns.

The e-mails in question read:

“Dear Colleagues,

We are reaching out to you about Gas Power Game’s RPG, Wildman on Kickstarter.If you have not posted the story yet, we would really appreciate your support for Chris Taylor and his team. Any press you can drum up to get gamers donating to save the game would be a tremendous help. If you have already posted this news, we thank you.

"The outpouring of support this past few days has been unlike anything I could have imagined. I can’t thank everyone enough, and can only hope that one day I will return the favour to each and every person who reached out to help," said Chris Taylor, CEO and Founder of Gas Power Games.

We don’t often do this, but we are a small industry and we need to help each other out.”

Now let me be clear, I don’t want Gas Powered Games to shut down. Studio closures are bad for everyone, and working on a trade publication I’m completely supportive of developers staying in business – we need more talented individuals and teams in the industry, not less.

But when a studio on the verge of collapse hires a PR to send an e-mail out to game journalists starting with “dear colleagues”, begging for free promotion, and asking me – a journalist – to “drum up” press to get a developer donations, questions need to be raised.

Why should I emotionally blackmail our readers to back a developer that is unfortunately, but clearly, in turmoil and on the verge of collapse, into pledging their own cash for a project that may not even come to fruition?

And what do the layoffs mean for the project if it does receive the funding? How much goes into funding the game’s development, and how much goes into keeping the studio alive so backers see an end product? Will the costs of the project have changed given most of the staff have effectively been let go with severance packages?

Is $1.1million really enough to save a studio of this size? I find that hard to believe.

Don’t rock the boat

There appears to be an expectation of coverage for Kickstarter campaigns. The tough position for a journalist is that many of these projects are of interest to our readers. You can reel off a list that includes the Double Fine Adventure, Ouya, GameStick, Project Eternity, Wasteland 2, FTL, Oculus Rift – all undoubtedly big news and of interest to readers.

But are we just playing the part of the promoter – and giving developers taking to crowdfunding a free ride exempt from criticism? Should we be looking into the finer details of these Kickstarters more before the rush commences to be the first to post the news online? I’m beginning to feel very uncomfortable in my role of promoting these campaigns – and I hope others are too.

In the past I have analysed a number of projects on whether the developer truly needs to take to crowdfunding, or whether they are gaming the system to make up for bad decisions a studio head has made or to help rich studio heads gain free money. Examples of this include articles and interviews discussing projects such as Ouya, GameStick and the Oculus Rift.

These investigations need not be aggressive and negative, but simply to paint a full picture to give readers the opportunity to make an informed opinion on the matter.

On more than one occasion I’ve been contacted by PR’s unhappy with my questioning analysis, often trying to play on my journalistic ethics and whether I’m being fair and balanced. After all, surely I wouldn’t want to rock the boat of a Kickstarter when it’s trying to attract funding.

At a time when the spotlight is being shined on the relationship between game journalists and the industry, journalists should think twice before freely promoting a Kickstarter campaign.

What if it fails? Are journalists then also responsible for the fallout having led consumers astray without even researching the developer behind the project, and weighing up its chances for success?

Developers also need to think twice before committing to a Kickstarter campaign. Crowdfunding shouldn’t be used as a last ditch attempt to back up poor management and a poor business model at the potential expense of the consumer.

A few bad developers could tarnish crowdfunding for everyone, and it’s already beginning to happen. And they certainly shouldn’t solely rely on the press to promote their project.

Developers, and Kickstarter, must be more open about a project’s chance for success and the studio’s history and current state of affairs. And journalists too must do more to question a Kickstarter campaign’s chances of success.

Update: The PRs referenced in this piece have said that they sent out the e-mails to journalists free of charge.

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