Tobold's Blog
Friday, July 05, 2013
Buying mixed bags

I never liked buying mixed bags in games, with one purchase having several different purposes at the same time. For example the WoW charity pets, where half of the money spent went to charity, to me always felt like either I was paying double for the pet, or I was giving only half for charity. But the worst offender in selling mixed bags must be Kickstarter. If you give money for a game on Kickstarter, what exactly is it for? Are you pre-ordering a game that hasn't been made yet? Are you donating money to your favorite game developer? Is it a mini-investment sort of deal? Or are you signalling your preference for a certain genre? In fact it is a bit of all of that. But everybody has a different priority in that mixed bag. And when Kickstarter projects go wrong, how negatively you react will depend on what you thought you were buying.

If you are a backer of an ongoing Kickstarter project, chances are that you got an update this week which basically said: "Hey guys, we might not be on schedule, but it isn't quite as bad as Double Fine Adventure". I've already seen several versions of such updates, and received one myself from Banner Saga. Double Fine Adventure is the third-most funded game in the history of Kickstarter, and this week's news that the game would be a) late and b) split into episodes the sales of which were needed to finish the game didn't go down well with everybody. But of course again, if you basically just wanted to donate money or express a preference you probably are less angry than if you thought you pre-ordered a game.

In the Banner Saga update the devs said that themselves:
"We thought now we could do everything we ever wanted for the game, and got too ambitious. We thought we could make the game in six months, and I'm still not sure what we were thinking. That was stupid. I wish I could take that back, all we needed to do was put a different date there and nobody would be complaining. Whoops. We ARE still doing everything we want, and it's taking a long time. I don't feel bad about that. That was the POINT, right? To dream as big as we could?

It's interesting to think of it from someone else's point of view. For many people, letting a dev shoot for the moon is NOT the point. For a lot of people the point is I BOUGHT A GAME, WHERE IS IT?"
I think the problem is that "all we needed to do was put a different date there and nobody would be complaining" wouldn't actually work. Or rather it would work a lot less well. If the description of a Kickstarter project says "give us money and we will deliver you a great game in six months", a lot of people will give money to that project because they want that great game in six months. But as the Banner Saga update says:
"If nothing else, I think the gaming community is finally getting a good picture about real game development. What would really shock people is that there is nothing unusual about any of this, except that you are finally seeing it. This is every game development story that has ever existed, except instead of the publisher dealing with it, YOU are."
So if either the Kickstarter project descriptions were honest, or once people wisen up to the fact that they aren't, those of us who just wanted to pre-order that game will stop backing those Kickstarter projects. "Give us money, and we'll develop a game in our own time, change the content from what we promised, and add new monetization schemes to it, and then maybe at some later date deliver a game to you which you'll barely recognize" is a lot less attractive as Kickstarter pitch. A few people will still back it, because they actually want "let a dev shoot for the moon". But it is safe to say that Double Fine Adventure wouldn't have gotten $3.3 million in funding if the pitch had given the real delivery date and format of the product.

If you are selling a mixed bag, you can't claim afterwards of one component of it "That was the POINT? right?". Because it was the point only for a part of the backers. Other backers bought the same mixed bag for a completely different reason. And if your Kickstarter pitch made certain promises about how the game would be and when it would be delivered, you can't be surprised that some people are furious when those promises are broken. And if those promises are broken on high-profile projects like Double Fine Adventure, people will learn to be more skeptical about any promise on Kickstarter. The older Kickstarter gets, and the more people have an experience of not receiving what they thought they paid for, the less successful will future projects be.

Developer driven release dates are always "Soon". If they are delayed then release will be pushed back. If they are ahead of schedule, extra features will be added.
If the publisher demands that the developer delivers on time then the game will be incomplete, bug riddled or both and the end customer blames the publisher for ruining things.
With Kickstarter, the customers replace the publisher and but lose the ability to enforce release (unless they get a beta copy).
My rule of thumb for buying mixed bags (eg Humble Bundles) is: "Would I pay this for just couple of games on the list I know I a am going to play"

This rule works well for bundles. I get one or two games I like for a price I am comfortable with and if anything else turns out to be interesting then it is a bonus.

In Kickstarter you are not guaranteed to get any game at the guess the equivalent question is "Would I give this money for the warm fuzzy feeling of helping a game idea I like get closer to reality". If you ever get an actual game out of it then it is a bonus.
Players tend to be quite naive about software development; the apocryphal "80% of all IT projects are late" does feel about right.


I am old enough to remember "waterfall" project development where you had a project plan and task list. is a newer paridigm.

Before, if things turn out more difficult than anticipated, the date is delayed. The agile methodology used by most game companies would be the date is met and the features are adjusted.

I make the point that it is not that Bioware and Blizzard are choosing not tot tell you what is in the version after next. Rather, they currently do not know. It is an iterative process what makes it in. If tasks and features take longer than was originally estimated, then the features are
scaled back or dropped. If the features were public, then the customers get grumpy.

I was struck by the idea that giving your customers a list of the features up front might be bad because the silly customers might think that there was a commitment to those features.

Projects completion dates are affected by scope, resources and quality. You can't really add people effectively in mid project (Brooks' Mythical Man Month) and like to pretend you won't compromise on quality. It is reasonable to say we are doing a patch every 9 weeks or an expansion every 26 weeks, with the exact features varying as we learn more about their cost. But that is not what users want and especially not some of the entitled ones who regard feature changes as fraud and being lied to.

I would tend to agree that most KS teams are run by people who lack the skills to pull it off and may or may not lack the knowledge they don't have the skills.

But it takes a lot of software development maturity and a known problem domain to a priori decide on reasonable project plans and schedules. Semi-amateurs doing innovative things on KS is quite far from that.
I think a bit of reality-checking is no harm. Probably most Kickstarter backers are willing to cut the developers a bit of slack so long as the product comes out eventually in something like the advertised form.

Though the biggest question going begging is what sort of game would be coming at all if Double Fine or these guys had just raised their target, rather than seven or eight times their target.

I have always thought that video games were a particularly poor medium for Kickstarter. There is simply too much variance in what and when the end product will be in contrast to the overly optimistic initial concept.

The best Kickstarters I have seen have been for things that need no development. For instance, Order of the Stick did a reprinting of one of their old books that was out of print. Nothing special here, we just need at least X number of people in order to do a printing. Back the project, and you know exactly what you're getting (and when).
I don't think Project Eternity has yet delayed itself and it's like the second most funded game on kickstarter.
I'm with Hagu on most of the important bits. In the end most customers/gamers are not or have not ever worked in software development and have no idea of what it takes to produce something complicated. When I back a project the time frame is rarely ever a concern for me. It's not like a major publisher will scoop a KS project because they already passed on the ideas of most KS projects because it's too small of a niche for them to bother with. I've got plenty of patience and a ridiculous number of games in my Steam library that I've never even installed. KS is a crowd funding site, not a crowd pre-ordering site. If the risks of not getting a product at all, getting a slightly or majorly different product, and or getting a product ten years late aren't acceptable then don't back a project.
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