Kickstarter-Funded Games: Are We Asking for Too Little?

Matt Barton's picture

As someone who has been to bat for several Kickstarter projects lately, I'm becoming concerned with what's going to happen on the other end. After all this community support, will it be back to business as usual when the products hit the shelves? Will all this "fan outreach" end when they start worrying about maximizing their sales?

How will I feel when the games that I've not only helped fund, but--like many of you, have also promoted heavily with every social media tool at my disposal--how will I feel if those games end up on the shelf with the same kind of closed-source, DRM-encrusted, shrinkwrap-licensed bullshit that plagues the rest of the industry?

After some preliminary research, I've found that while most of the big game projects at least promise a DRM free version (at least as a limited option to backers), there are few promises that they will *exclusively* offer DRM free versions.

Let's consider how some of the Kickstarters I've supported are handling these issues:

  • Project Eternity. Raised 3.9 million. Offering DRM-free downloads. Nothing I can find about source code or sharing assets; looks like a traditional copyright model.
  • Double Fine Adventure. Raised 3.3 million. DRM-free; nothing about source code or CC licensing.
  • Wasteland 2. Raised: 2.9 million dollars. They are offering a DRM-free digital download, but I don't see anything about sharing the source code, assets, or alternative licensing.
  • Star Citizen. Raised 2.1 million. I see no promises anywhere about the game being DRM-free or sharing anything, despite a lot of talk about how they're rejecting the "corporate suits."
  • Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption. Raised 400K. DRM-free; no source code or CC license.

Finally, I did an overall Kickstarter search for "creative commons" and "open source" and came up with zero results in computer games.

The way I see it, if you're reaching out your hand for community support, you need to consider supporting the community in return. That means, in my humble opinion, sharing your source code, using an alternative licensing scheme such as Creative Commons--so other people can BUILD on your work--and, perhaps most importantly, sharing assets to enable faster community development.

In the future, I will not be supporting any Kickstarter project that doesn't at least offer exclusively DRM-free versions and at least some kind of sharing scheme for source code and at least some assets. I don't expect anyone to put their work into the public domain, but they should at least make some of their source code and assets available to give back to the community that funded their work. Ideally, what I'd like to see is full access to the source code, CC-licenses, and a healthy library of shared assets.

I realize some of these folks are using proprietary engines and thus cannot share all of their code, but there's no reason they couldn't share some of it. I'd actually like them to go a step further, and not just share code, but offer some videos or resources to help aspiring game developers (in all areas) learn from the process. This isn't an "us vs. them" situation anymore between developers and gamers. This is a mutually beneficial situation where the community supports you--and you reciprocate by building up that community.


Coyote (not verified)

Under a traditional publishing model (at least as privy as I was to the business / contract side, which wasn't much), we were supposed to keep our source code in escrow until final delivery, in case we failed to meet our contractual obligations. THEN the publisher - who was funding us - would have access to our assets and code base. But that never happened. When Sony decided to go it on their own for Twisted Metal 3 and Jet Moto 3, they had to start from scratch.

As a (budget) indie, I often license assets or code for non-exclusive use that I may spend a couple hundred bucks PER ASSET to use. Why should it be reasonable for a kickstarter funder to expect a bunch of that for their $25?

The utility is a bigger question. Having gone through this, I know how hard it is for games to actually find appropriate content to use given a particular setting, art style, etc. I was a little naive when I started. And while complete, self-contained general-purpose objects / libraries can be handy as a developer, digging through someone else's game code is rarely of much use. At least to me. Example code? Sure, very helpful. But digging through someone else's production UI code for something valuable to use or learn from?

Don't get me wrong - I think it's a cool idea for developers to "give back" in this way, but I think that creative commons or open source content or code for games is far less valuable than some people estimate, and I can't really see a case where backers should legitimately feel entitled to it. Just my $0.02. But as always, it's your money - while I think it's tilting at windmills, if people vote with their wallets, that's what'll happen.

Shawn Delahunty
Shawn Delahunty's picture
Joined: 08/01/2011
Gotta partially disagree Coyote

digging through someone else's game code is rarely of much use. At least to me. Example code? Sure, very helpful. But digging through someone else's production UI code for something valuable to use or learn from?

As a programmer myself, I can tell you that it is hugely helpful to see source code, no matter how mangled / hacked / jacked-up / rigged it might have become in the development process. The fact that iD software publicly released their old codebases has yielded some very good spin-off games, and encouraged a decent number of programmers to try their hand at modding and hacking. From my own work, having access to original source, and not just an object/library, has saved tons of time when structuring things.

That said, I do very much agree with your point that backers shouldn't feel entitled to the source code. At least not at the low-level of pledges where most of them come in. The amount of effort put into codebases, particularly for a small team, means that they'll likely want to keep it closed--if only so that they can attempt to create another game with it.

The key point, to me at least, is in the name of the site; the notion that this is a Kickstarter... something to help get an indie game company with some non-mainstream or downright weird ideas started. It's not a "Buy-All-Your-Assets-er". The fundamental notion is to kick-start a business. And part of success in business means competitive advantage. Any advantage for a small company is a necessary one for their survival.

Dean (not verified)
I think you are asking too much!

I'm not sure I agree with your thinking here Matt. When I back a Kickstarter project, at best I hope I get what was promised for the funding tier I selected, worst case I expect nothing in return. Kickstarter projects are like investing in the stock market. As Coyote said, is it reasonable to expect the projects source code for a $25, $50, or even $500 pledge?

I do like what you said about DRM-free, I think I may seriously consider this as a prerequisite for any future projects I decide to fund. I stopped playing most computer games years ago, partially because of DRM and partially because of game consoles (mostly because kids came along and I don't have much time).

Bob (not verified)
Why not ask for developer's first born?

Matt, please keep in perspective that Kickstarter pledges are more like pre-sales, not investing in ownership. Refusing to pledge if the developer does not provide source code and assets seems a bit over the top. Stretch goals like modding support seems like a reasonable compromise.

I agree a DRM-free option is a fair expectation for paying customers, and would not support a Kickstarter game without that option. Intrusive and restrictive DRM ironically encourages more piracy. I'm not hung up on exclusively DRM-free, though. If the developer offers additional options, such as Steam, then it makes no difference to me unless there was no other choice.

Alex McGilvray
Alex McGilvray's picture
Joined: 11/26/2012
Modability would be great. I

Modability would be great. I would love to do something like create my own quests in the Shadowrun game.

Perhaps being able to add on to the game rather than fork it would be nice.

Martin (not verified)
investing? pre-sales?

Trying to equivocate it with an investment or a pre-sale doesn't quite feel right to me. At least not as a categorical-blank statement over the issue of fundraising by game-makers.

People are not so much investing in the games, so much as they are heeding to a communal call to support people in whom they believe.
You therefore shouldn't view it as if multitudes of random individuals are securing each 25$ or 500$ for a product, but rather as a community investing tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars in individuals worthy of trust.

The community is doing what a normal financier would never dare do - providing creative freedom and an unquestioning financial backing, while not demanding assurances in return.

Ignoring the communal aspect of it seems short-minded and short-sited. Again, IMHO.

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
DRM free should be the

DRM free should be the minimum. In theory, they've made a sizable portion of all the money they'll ever make on the game, so there's no particular risk from direct/impactful losses from piracy. In fact, selling successfully before having an actual product eliminates most types of risk...

Coyote (not verified)
But is that really the case,

But is that really the case, Bill?

Something like Kickstarter would, IMO, capture the die-hard, but I doubt they represent the majority of your actual market, let alone potential market.

If the Ouya doesn't sell many more machines than its Kickstarter pre-orders, we can safely consider it a failed console. But the hope and plan was that this would get the 'vocal elite' talking about it, generate enough funding to pay the up-front costs.

Brian Fargo talks about "kicking it forward," and he's talking about profits --- post-Kickstarter income. In theory, Kickstarter funds should go 100% into development costs and rewards (at least the percentage that goes back to developers) - which does not make a sustainable business. If you had to live Kickstarter-to-Kickstarter *honestly*, you'd be in trouble very quickly. And if Wasteland 2 doesn't sell more than the 61,290 copies to backers, it'd also be a failure. I'd hope that they could expect 5x total those sales, ideally closer to 10x. I'm not sure what the total sales for Legend of Grimrock are, but I suspect they're in that 5x+ range. Not all at full price, of course.

All that being said, I'm with you on the no-DRM thing. But more because it's The Right Thing for your backers and customers.

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
I don't see anyone here

I don't see anyone here advocating for DRM on these games, so at least we're all agreed on that. Let's try to keep the other two issues separate:
1. Should the dev release the source code?
2. Should the dev share creative assets (models, artwork, music, etc.) produced in-house under a Creative Commons license.

As far as releasing the code goes, there are great arguments for why that's important. The FOSS community has been arguing about it for years. The one argument that really worked on me was that if you can't see the code, you have NO IDEA what the software is doing to your machine. It'd be like eating a box of cereal with no clue about the ingredients! Even if I can't interpret the code, somebody else will probably find anything malicious and let me know about it before it gets to me. Furthermore, if you have bugs in your game but release the source code, then fans later on down the line can offer unofficial patches to fix them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, other coders can LEARN from you. Why wouldn't you want to be admired as an exemplar? I'm sure it was more pride than anything that pushed Carmack to release his code. He wanted people to see his genius for what it is.

A couple thoughts on how this could be done without injuring the developer. One, there's no reason it has to be done right away. You could just say that you promise you will release the source code at some pre-determined point, such as a year, five years, ten years, whatever. Two, there's no reason you have to release ALL of it, especially parts that use third-party stuff, or stuff you plan to use later.

Now for #2. I think the key thing people are missing here is the CC license and getting it confused with public domain. Going with CC is NOT giving something away. There are limitations on what people can do with your stuff. Let's say you did a CRPG and made a bunch of 3D models of monsters. Someone like me, who might be able to design a game but struggle to make my own models--I'd LOVE to have access to those! I don't know why'd you care if I used them as long as I wasn't trying to make a profit off of it. CC will not let me do that, so what's the issue? I guess there are some artists out there who would be offended if somebody used their models in a crap game, but I think they'll get over it. They should feel good that people like their work enough to want to use it.

After reading the comments here and elsewhere, though, I'm convinced that many developers now begging for Kickstarter pledges will go right back to business as usual as soon as their product hits the shelves. There will be no sharing, no caring, and no community participation. All they're really doing is treating their fans like a little army of naive publishers. "Give us the money to make this game, then we'll sell it to you. Then we'll take all the stuff we've built and sell you other games."

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
Matt Barton wrote:

After reading the comments here and elsewhere, though, I'm convinced that many developers now begging for Kickstarter pledges will go right back to business as usual as soon as their product hits the shelves. There will be no sharing, no caring, and no community participation. All they're really doing is treating their fans like a little army of naive publishers. "Give us the money to make this game, then we'll sell it to you. Then we'll take all the stuff we've built and sell you other games."

This is the biggest issue for me and why I've scaled back to almost none the software projects I'll actually support. Knowing the game industry the way I (we) do, it's way too common to overpromise and underdeliver, on top of planning anomalies where the money may run out or any other number of issues will arise. When you support a project in 2012 with a delivery date of 2+ years out, that's also an obvious problem, though clearly is the industry reality of how long it takes to create a quality game (assuming you even get that at the end).

Kickstarter is clearly awesome, and I've already received about a half dozen of the products I've funded, and have only occasionally been disappointed or underwhelmed. Some of that of course had to do with my enthusiasm from six months earlier changing due to my own circumstances changing. Now push that out 2 years+ and you see more where I (and many of us) are coming from.

Perhaps Kickstarter needs to have sub-Kickstarters. They already have categories, but I'm talking more along the lines of different rules for different types of projects. Different funding, different requirements, different accountability, etc. I think that would solve the major issues with the process.

As for your other points, yes, I do think there's a certain "give back to the fans" that should be expected of these developers, but one could could also argue that by creating a game that's only funded by people who really want it, they're already doing that. Anything beyond DRM-free may not be necessary, though I suppose it only takes one high profile case to set the example for others to follow...


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.