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More Kick than Start?

Crowd-sourcing is a great way of funding indie-games, but it can't succeed without the respect for planning that would usually get forced on developers.

Tim Willison, Blogger

April 20, 2012

4 Min Read

I'm not sure this post is going to be received well.

So let me buffer a bit. I love games. I particularly love indie games. My first experiences with a computer were making games, and that's how I figured out how to program. It was all indie games because there weren't really big publishers then. So I hope folks will take the following in the right spirit.

The Kickstarter Thing

Everyone knows about Kickstarter by now - it's crowd-sourced funding. On the surface it seems like a dream come true for indie game publishers, and lately there has been a raft of great titles revived by the people who want to play them and will vote with their money. Yay the choke-hold of the big publishers is broken!

But there is a down-side.

Recently I came across an article posted first on Kotaku, then ScrewAttack, with a link to the Kickstarter page of War Balloon, makers of Star Command. The game premise is based closely on Star Trek, and it's an RPG that will appeal to a lot of gamers. At the post, the game studio went on to reveal details of what their funding (about $36K) went towards. As it turns out, they greatly underestimated what it takes to make a game of the type they proposed.

To their credit, they acknowledged underestimating the cost of the prize-packs that fans would get by donating funds. These included t-shirts, posters and such. About $10K went to this alone. I expect most of the unexpected cost of this came not from the printing, but from the logistics - the pick/pack/ship process. As they mentioned, they were not equipped in this area.

That is all well and good. Half the success of Kickstarter  lies in the fact that it lets companies get out of their safe zone and try something different. But does this mean they should throw planning to the wind? Should they make a fancy trailer on nothing more than an idea and ask for people's money?

The comments on Kotaku and Gamasutra have lit up with people saying War Balloon got screwed by the lawyers, and I find it all too common in the indie games world for this anti-establishment bravado to fly in the face of common sense. War Balloon spent a mere $4000 on their lawyers, who would have had to do the incorporation, trademark search, trademark filing and protection, and copyright protection. Anyone who has ever had experience in this would know instantly that $4000 is a paltry sum for such work. And it's ridiculous to suggest you should launch a title without it, especially when you've received funding from backers. You're playing with their money.

Yet here's War Balloon stating straight away "What would we do different? Keep the attorneys out of it...in hindsight a nice piece of napkin paper probably would have done just as well". I'm sorry, that's just foolish. In fact, it seems like the one thing War Balloon did right is the first thing they would undo if they had the option. They quip "maybe we will get another attorney and sue them".

It's easy to cry foul at attorneys, they are an easy target for a group that prides itself on independence and living outside the rules. War Balloon is pandering to that spirit to excuse the fact that they simply don't know what they are doing. Four thousand dollars people - they paid more than that for their music, and almost that much to go to PAX. Yet neither of those things are protecting them now, or ensuring that the backers get the game they are looking for.

The truth is that far more indies have been harmed by not having good representation than have been harmed by attorneys. While it is noble of the game company to publish their experience, it's simplistic to talk about the lawyers and spark of cries of "screwed by the lawyers" from people who just don't know anything about running a business. War Balloon seems like nice people, truly enthusiastic about games. That's very attractive. But yes, nice people can screw up and they did so. They are legitimately trying to produce their game and that is admirable. But if they don't own their failures, will they remain a viable company?

But is it their fault?

The fact remains that investors on Kickstarter are not professional investors, and they are not likely to ask the questions that a venture capitalist would. That's a good thing. But it also means that indie devs don't have the benefit/plague of that critical eye a real investor will focus on their work. If the company asking for money doesn't do a good job of proving not just their idea, but their capability, then it's up to people not to put their money in!

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