Kickstarter is an arena I’ve been watching with increasing levels of horror over the last couple of months. After the continued success of projects like Wasteland, Shadowrun and Eternity proved there was a lot of money to be extracted from gamers’ nostalgia glands there was always going to be a group of “me too!” Kickstarters trying to jump on the bandwagon before it drives over a cliff. Even so, it’s been depressing to see Kickstarters like Hero-U, which inexplicably looks worse than the twenty year-old Quest for Glory games, or the Old School RPG disaster. The quantites of money being asked for get ever larger (I actually have trouble remembering that Doublefine only asked for $400,000, and that Wasteland was considered so unlikely to get to $1 million that Brian Fargo put up $100,000 of his own money) and the details behind the actual product that money is going to create get ever sketchier — a trend that has culminated in the recent appearance of the Kickstarter for Elite: Dangerous.
Oh, it’s dangerous alright. For one thing, it’s dangerous to expect people to give you £1,250,000 based on nothing but the word “Elite”, because that is precisely what David Braben’s company is doing here. For another, I’d consider it a very dangerous place to put your money if you want any kind of return on your investment, and the reasons for this should become obvious if you look at the non-history of Elite 4. I remember first reading rumblings about this in gaming magazines back when I still read gaming magazines circa 1999. It’s come up again and again over the years, being namedropped by Braben whenever he feels Frontier Developments needs some press/investment, but despite a near-decade of work having been done on various incarnations of the game they still have virtually nothing to show for it, save a few pieces of concept art that were belatedly scattered throughout the Kickstarter page after more than a few people pointed out that asking for a million quid based on a name and the vaguest possible outline of what the final game would be like was possibly asking a little bit too much.
In fact if Elite 4 exists at all it fits the classic description of a vapourware title; if and when something concrete is released it will follow the trail blazed by such former vapourware luminaries as Daikatana and Duke Nukem Forever. Both games fell victim to the technology trap; they wasted so much time rewriting their code to be up-to-date that by the time they’d finished and gotten back on track with developing actual content the technology had slipped again. Other vapourware titles have promised the moon in terms of concept and then run into significant problems when the time came to actually implement their ambitious ideas in the code, often being quietly cancelled a few years down the line when it became obvious there was no way to make the game work1. The original Kickstarter pledge didn’t exactly do a great deal to assuage my concerns over the nature of the game, containing as it did precisely zero evidence of any preliminary work having been done on the game. There wasn’t even a video outlining just what their plans were for the Kickstarter, which I consider to be the absolute minimum for any company that wants to get their hands on what is essentially a donation from me. Just a big block of text saying “I’m one of the guys who made Elite, and with the magic of procedural generation I can do it again!” This is not the sort of thing that makes me confident in the prospects of seeing an actual finished product, especially when you consider Frontier Developments’ previous track record in game development.
Something else that makes me a bit leery are the price points for the Kickstarter rewards. This has always been a bit of a thorny issue where games are concerned, as the most popular donation level is invariably the lowest one that’ll get you a copy of the game when it’s finally done. It’s essentially treated as a more entitled form of pre-ordering by a lot of people, even though that’s not really what’s going on here at all. Others have compared it to patronising the arts; the implication being that seeing a decent product at the end of it would be a happy bonus to supporting somebody in an ambitious endeavour that wouldn’t happen otherwise and doesn’t have a 100% chance of panning out. This is closer to the truth – and is largely what Kickstarter exists to do – but when somebody comes along and asks for a million pounds I think we’ve moved beyond a couple of struggling creators being supported by hundreds of bedroom Medicis. Now we’re into the realm of an actual business investment, and I think offering a copy of the game for what is essentially a discounted price in exchange for my – and thousands of other people’s – early support making the game possible in the first place is a perfectly reasonable return for the risk inherent in that investment. Most Kickstarters I’ve pledged to have seen it the same way, with the lowest game tier being set at a price point that is, if not exactly discounted, at least agreeably cheap.
Elite: Dangerous disagrees with this point of view, however. If I want a copy of the game on release, I have to pledge a minimum of £20 (or $31), and once the early-adopter slots run out in a week or so I’ll have to up my game and fork over £30 (or $47). What they’re doing here is asking for all of the money you’d normally pay up-front for a multi-million dollar AAA title you’d buy in a shop. The only bonuses you get for supporting the game this early are a minimum of an 18 month wait time for the finished product and a not-insignificant quantity of risk. Now, I should state once again that this is more-or-less how Kickstarter was originally intended to work, so on the face of it Elite: Dangerous isn’t doing anything particularly skeevy; the truth of the matter is that every Kickstarter pledge is a donation, not a pre-order, and they can ask for whatever they want if they think it’ll get them the cash they need to make the game. They’re simply using the system as intended.
Or are they? Personally I don’t think they are. I think they’re taking advantage of it, and the reason I think this is because there’s been a lot of discussion in the gaming media about how crowdsourced games on Kickstarter represent a new paradigm where game developers go directly to the consumers to seek funding for the games both groups want to see made, with none of those pesky additional costs like the publisher rake-off or physical distribution ever getting a look-in. Elite: Dangerous does not appear to have noticed this, though. Elite: Dangerous is asking for money using the rules of the old publisher-dominated paradigm, and in that context £30 doesn’t seem so unreasonable. It’s only when you remember the absence of all these hidden costs making crowdsourced games considerably cheaper to develop that you realise those pledge tiers are actually a little bit of a con. Either Frontier Developments are being incredibly cynical here (very possible) or else they simply haven’t thought their Kickstarter through (also very possible). Setting what is (I think) the largest target total of any video game Kickstarter to date is simply the wonky icing on a very uncertainly-balanced cake. Can you really argue that there’s any element of charitable donation remaining when you’re a 235-person company asking for two million dollars? I don’t think so.
My last point would be one about trust. Kickstarter is built around trust. The people/companies posting their projects on Kickstarter have to make a strong argument not only for their idea, but for their ability to deliver that idea. All they have is the length of their Kickstarter page2 to convince me that they’re competent enough for me to trust them with some of my money based on nothing more than an idea and a promise. This is why most Kickstarters treat what they’re doing as a kind of business pitch: the fundamentals are very similar even if the target audiences couldn’t be more different. Looking at a couple of examples there’s this guy, who is writing a book about the history of Sensible Software, and this lady who wants some money to outfit a first-rate London tea van. These are projects aimed at very limited audiences and each of the people behind them have realised that their success is not guaranteed, which is why both project pages go to great lengths to persuade anyone who stumbles across them that they know what they’re talking about and actually have a chance of seeing this through. The book one has an animated video done in the style of old Sensible games, for crying out loud; it knows exactly the sort of people who are going to spend thirty-eight dollars on a book and targets them mercilessly. Each of these Kickstarters expended approximately several million times more effort getting a few hundred people to donate money to seeing their dreams become a reality than Frontier Developments has in attempting to crowdsource its latest commercial venture via an audience of thousands. I didn’t pledge to the tea Kickstarter because I don’t drink tea – I know nothing about tea – but the project outline generated enough trust and goodwill with me that I genuinely do hope it will eventually be a success. That’s how Kickstarter works: it is not enough to plonk a Kickstarter down and hope there’s a large enough target audience that you’ll eventually reach your funding total. You have to build trust with that audience as well, and this is something that the Elite 4 Kickstarter has singularly failed to do for over a week now.
I should know. I’m exactly the kind of person the Elite 4 Kickstarter is aimed at. I have fond memories of playing Elite on our Acorn Archimedes, to the point that when I was asked a couple of years back which games were responsible for shaping me as a gamer I unhesitatingly pointed to Elite as one of the key influences. Other space trading games just haven’t measured up; Freelancer was too shallow, X3 too complex. I should be chomping at the bit to fund the resurrection of a beloved genre that’s been dead ever since the swansong of Freespace 2. Instead I’m annoyed. Annoyed that Braben is asking for so much on the strength of so little. Annoyed that Kickstarter is obviously seen by some developers as a source of free money they’re entitled to based on nothing more than past glories. It’s too much to hope that Elite: Dangerous will fail; while the pledge rate has slowed right down after the initial rush Kicktraq still projects it as just making its goal even in the most pessimistic of scenarios, largely thanks to the Kickstarter running time being an unprecedented two months. Perhaps Frontier Developments will use that time to come up with a little more detail on what exactly they’re going to use the £1,250,000 for, but I’m not hopeful, and I am not pledging. They need to work harder to get my money.