* Narrow-slice view of the industry incoming. I do not claim to speak for all (or most/many/any other/whatever) indie developers.
Before Minecraft invented/popularised alpha-funding as a viable way to make videogames, here is how you’d make an ambitious large-in-scope indie game:
- Make a small indie game in your spare time
- Repeat 1 until the pittance you earn from all these small indie games affords you some capital to invest in a larger project
- Make a slightly bigger indie game, pay someone to make the graphics swanky, spend some money on marketting
- Repeat 3 until you’ve got a pretty hefty chunk of profit or return to 1 if it was a commercial failure
- Gamble horribly, quit your job, pump all that money and a truck-load of time into your magnum opus, hope that Valve let you have it on Steam
- Profit, hopefully
You’d have to be pretty bonkers, really, to even go down the road of step 5. You’d be much better off just pumping out a tonne of smaller games and having the cumulative sales they generate sustain you and hopefully give you a reasonable standard of living.
But Alpha-Funding / Kickstarter (and then Early Access) changed that. It meant that step 1 could be the large-in-scope magnum opus. If you can get people interested in your project in its infancy, you can be sustained all through the game’s development. That almighty step 5 risk is hugely reduced (at the cost of putting a comparatively tiny amount of risk on a lot of individuals who support your game). It is simultaneously the most liberating and the most dangerous method of making videogames. It comes with costs far beyond the paltry sum that you are usually asked for to buy the thing early in development – costs which affect customers and developers alike.
Costs exclusively concerning customers
- The ambitious-sounding project may just end up being too ambitious. Game never gets finished, your £1 / £5 / £10 is effectively wasted
- The project may have been perfectly realistic in scope, but due to simply never managing to attract sufficient interest it is never finished, your £1 / £5 / £10 is effectively wasted
- The game may not end up being what you expected it to be, you consider your £1 / £5 / £10 to be wasted
- It places an impossible burden of responsibility onto the customer. While publishers have the experience to recognise a game design horribly out of touch with what is practical, or a tech-demo with terrible foundations, your average customer does not – yet they’re the ones who, when upset when things do not turn out as they expected, are shrugged off with the, “well you should have done better research” argument
- If you were expecting the game to get better in good faith, and it didn’t, you’ve probably already blown your chance of getting a refund (this applies less if you bought it on GOG, of course)
Costs which affect both customers and developers
- The game will eventually cease to have support / updates. There will be a large number of people who will be unhappy – regardless of how complete the developer considers the game to be at that point
- To excite people into giving you money at the point you’ve barely started is… difficult. Your project needs to stand out. There is huge danger here in inflating your game’s scope beyond ‘ambitious but do-able’ to ‘ambitious to the point of insanity’ in order to be noticed
- You need not demonstrate any ability to finish a game in order to attract the money to start one – unlike every single other way of getting funding. While there is no ethical problem with simply releasing a crap game, having it review terribly, and having those that buy it refund it within an hour – those ethics become questionable when you’re taking money for a project you cannot know that you can complete. A horribly misguided sense of ability can be endearing if you merely output awful games no-one buys, but there’s nothing endearing about misleading people into buying in to those delusions, intentionally or otherwise
- The skills required to pitch a concept fall far below the skills required to successfully create that concept. This development method enables those who both lack the skills to complete what they’ve pitched and also those skills required to recognise that they can’t complete what they’ve pitched. From a consumer perspective, these pitches are often indistinguishable from realistic pitches.
Costs exclusively concerning developers
- You’re potentially throwing away the chance to build-up your skills and experience slowly if your project ends as a high-profile disaster
I’m not suggesting, then, that no-one should make an alpha-funded game, or that our own game is some sort of shining beacon of this method. Alpha-funding, to us, was a necessity – and we considered our chances of finishing what we started to be pretty damn certain. But, of course, everyone who isn’t actually trying to pull-off deception would say that, but it doesn’t mean that we or they would ultimately be correct. I do think that, in general, those indie developers who create many smaller projects are the smart ones – all our eggs are currently in one basket and, while we’ve been successful with Zomboid in terms of sales, we were pretty lucky that the DayZ mod appeared shortly after we released our first build and ignited interest in the survival genre. Thanks Dean!
I also think critics can serve tremendous good in this context. We can’t expect an average gamer to be necessarily able to recognise the difference between those concepts likely to succeed and those likely to fail. Critics, however, are more familiar with games development and can distinguish between the two and spot-light the former. Kickstarter pitches often overlook including a “risks and challenges” section and sometimes when it is included exists in a sort of, “my greatest weakness is sometimes I care too much” way. I’d like to see more prominence of those articles which really look into early game builds / pitches in-depth.