Q&A: Equity crowdfunding - is it right for your game?

Equity crowdfunding is an interesting concept that turns pledgers into actual investors. But it's still a legal minefield that requires careful consideration before jumping in.
Mike Wilson is co-founder of Gambitious, a crowdfunding platform that takes the typical Kickstarter funding formula and adds an important twist. Gambitious is an equity crowdfunding platform for video games, which means that people who pledge funds towards a game don't just receive a t-shirt or copy of the game -- they become investors who receive a percentage of the profits from the game. Is equity crowdfunding right for you, either as an investor or as a game developer seeking funding? We caught up with Wilson for a quick email catch-up.

Can you give our readers a quick recap of what equity crowdfunding is?

Equity crowdfunding is where the investors actually get a percentage of a project's profits (if there are any) that they supported, rather than just the game or a t-shirt or whatever. It tends to make more sense for people looking to invest $100 or more. People putting in 20 bucks don't care about maybe making a couple of bucks in a couple of years... they just want the stuff, or are just in it to support the cause.What's new with Gambitious?Gambitious is currently moving it's headquarters from Holland to the UK, where the government is being very pro-active and diligent about figuring out their rules for equity crowdfunding. Since each major territory will have slightly different rules, it's good to be "native" in a bigger market with so many developers and investors. We've sort of been in stasis since the spring when Train Fever became the first ever equity crowd-funded game while we worked through this process. We're adding several new quality projects for launch very soon, (like in a couple/few weeks) some of which are for pledge/donations ala Kickstarter, and some of which will be equity raises. We'll be doing our re-launch with the UK rules in place at Gamescom and looking to add more projects at that time. We have had a lot of developer hitting us up after the Train Fever success, but we have been putting everyone off while we work through the regulations and the move to the UK. We don't have a ton of traffic on the site, as we have been completely quiet and are not trying to direct people there since there are no active projects, but developers are definitely aware of us and watching closely. Many, many developers were very intrigued and inspired by the Train Fever example, since it was a mostly unknown team and a not-mainstream-sexy game pitch. These guys would not have raised 350k euros on Kickstarter, certainly not out of Switzerland.

Last time we talked, there were a lot of legal and regulatory issues that are keeping equity crowdfunding from being legal in the U.S. What's the current status of its legality in the U.S.? Is it any closer to becoming legal?

It has been very quiet in the U.S. with the new head of the SEC in place. Many have speculated that we are waiting for the UK to figure out their rules, which ours will likely resemble more than other countries. It is quite a complicated issue, probably more so in the US than anywhere else due to our litigious culture and the power that the public companies wield in our economy and our government.

What are some of the legal and regulatory issues that are holding it back?

It all boils down to the responsibility each government has taken upon itself to protect it's citizens from investing in snake oil. Which is pretty funny to think about given the shenanigans our public companies and investment banks have pulled on all of us. Basically the difference between public companies and private is the public companies can advertise and offer their stock to the general public for investment, since they ostensibly are held to high standards and are heavily regulated, whereas private companies cannot advertise investment offerings except to professional investors, VC's, and other 'qualified investors' such as high net worth individuals who I guess are expected to be able to do their own homework. The crap part of this is, of course, that wealthy people ("qualified investors") are offered opportunities to make money with private investments that lay-people are not, and regular people are left to only be able to invest in a sea of huge, bloated, old-world inefficient public companies. I think that 2008 underscored the fact that the stock market is a huge casino where even the experts can lose their shirts at any given time, which makes it funny and a bit sad that our government wants to protect us from investing in products that we are passionate about from small companies with business plans that are easily understood.

What's the state of equity crowdfunding in Europe? How is its popularity compared to "regular" crowdfunding?

Equity crowdfunding has been around in Europe for a long time, in varying degrees in the different territories. It's seen as an economic stimulus opportunity. But with the success of crowdfunding in general exploding in the past couple of years, the conversations are definitely picking up steam. Another ironic thing about our governments is that none of them have any problem with companies or individuals soliciting people to just give them money for some project that may or may not ever come to fruition, but if you're offering to try to give them a return on their investment it's a big problem. In games, donations or pledges are certainly still way more popular than equity, as there are no hurdles to jump through. But in startups in general, where companies would be otherwise limited to VC's or angel groups for investment, equity crowdfunding a pretty popular way to try to get funded. Symbid, our partner who built our backbone for Gambitious, has been at this for several years in other markets, just offering various business plans in general for the crowd.

What kind of project do you think equity crowdfunding is most fit for? Does Gambitious have much competition in this area -- it seems like a fairly narrow subset of crowdfunding.

I think any project with an easily demonstrated market and a good plan for reaching that market is a good candidate for equity crowdfunding. We make our developers actually think through and present a business plan for not just completing their project, but going through testing, QA, localization, marketing and distribution. I think we can all agree that many of the projects we've seen on other crowdfunding platforms could have used some thinking-through. This isn't a guarantee of anything, but if you're giving someone your money, whether for a copy of the game or a t-shirt or for an investment, it's nice to know they have a real plan that some industry experts have helped them work through. There isn't much competition out there just for games crowdfunding with an equity option... we do know of one, but it's owned by a digital distributor that wants any project funded on there to be sold exclusively through that store, which seems pretty limiting. We full expect that there will be more competition, and that's a good thing, but I will say this is quite a thing to put together... international securities law isn't for the squeamish, so I wouldn't expect a flood of companies doing what we are doing.

Earlier this year I spoke to some developers who had run successful Kickstarters, and they were vocal about their disinterest in equity crowdfunding. Among the reasons: Throwing real investments into the formula takes away from "vibe" of people supporting something that they're simply, purely enthusiastic about on a creative level. And also, devs would rather give away a free t-shirt or soundtrack than share profits. So, why might someone choose equity crowdfunding over more traditional crowdfunding options?

I think the key here is you spoke to people who had gotten their money from donations [smiles]. If you talked to a bunch of guys whose Kickstarters have failed, you'd get a different answer. The "vibe" only works if you have the credentials or social marketing power to get funded elsewhere. Other developers (the vast majority) will not get funded this way and going the equity route seems pretty attractive versus dealing with VC's or publishers who will take control of their project and usually own the IP. There is also a fair portion of the population who would never just give their money away, especially knowing that there is a significant chance that the project will never see the light of day. Those people might be more interested in investing in a game project that they are passionate about, with a business plan they can understand and believe in, as opposed to say E-Trade or a mutual fund. These people will generally be putting more money in than the fans who just want the game. It's just a different audience for your crowdfunding effort. Gambitious will be running equity projects, donation projects, and hybrid projects where a developer can try their luck at fan donations and then offer equity to more serious investors to fill the gap. This last approach is the one we are most excited about and looking forward to introduce later this year.

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