A Dangerous Kickstarter.

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.


  1. Not incidentally this is exactly what happened to Frontier Developments’ previous game, The Outsider.
  2. Admittedly Kickstarter pages can be rather long.
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26 thoughts on “A Dangerous Kickstarter.

  1. Joe says:

    Yet another sad sign of the times for gaming culture. It’s funny, just the other day I was thinking ‘I really hope nobody ever gets the idea to do another MoO game on Kickstarter.’ This is the first time I have ever felt like our generation has been blatantly taken advantage of. Oh well… Anyways, great post.

    • Hentzau says:

      It’s too much too hope for, alas. There will inevitably be a Kickstarter for a new MoO (or a “spiritual successor”) and unless it comes from a development house with some serious strategy experience it will almost certainly be terrible.

      • Gap says:

        New Endless Space? Could be a good company to throw Kickstarter money at.

        • Hentzau says:

          Eh, their alpha preorder thing on Steam was intended to get them money to actually finish it, so to all intents and purposes Endless Space *was* a Kickstarter. Also I need to go back to it to see if they fixed any of the annoyances that found their way into the finished game.

  2. Bink says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this. I happily ponied up for DFA and Wasteland (and more), and this should have been an absolute cert for my money. Elite on the BBC B is without a doubt the most cherished game of my childhood (and the box still sitting on the bookshelf next to me agrees), but the way Braben has gone about this is utterly, utterly wrong. I would love to play a decent modern version of Elite, but that love doesn’t stretch to £20 of shallow promises.

    • Hentzau says:

      In fairness the Project Eternity Kickstarter was also a little bit confused when it first went up, but it only took a couple of days for Obsidian to get their act together and start really engaging with their audience in an attempt to drum up as much funding as they possibly could. It seemed to work extremely well for them. That should be the model for bigger developers to follow when posting projects on Kickstarter, and I honestly don’t know why you wouldn’t *want* to follow it when it directly translates to getting more money.

      Which is why the silence coming from Frontier Developments regarding Elite is more than a little bit baffling. It’s almost like they haven’t done their homework on what a successful Kickstarter campaign involves, which is staggering when you consider that they’re asking for a million pounds.

      I mean, compare it to Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen, which has some *really* large question marks looming over its funding (Roberts has stated that there are “other investors” waiting to jump in if the crowdsourcing drive is a success) and some similarly expensive pricing tiers, but which is at least posting regular updates about what their plans are for the game. They’re doing it right. Elite isn’t.

      • innokenti says:

        I dunno, day 1 Project Eternity was pretty detailed – it had a good video going through both Obsidian’s track record and their ideas for what Project Eternity would be.

        Then they were funded in just 24 hours (I think on the strength of both being Obsidian and because their campaign was very credible) and then there were about 2 days of faff and scramble while they worked out what to do for the rest of the month. And it’s fairly impressive that they came up with a pretty sweet plan in those two days that got them quadruple the funding…

        But yeah, Elite is being the complete antithesis. Which given the example set by PE and W2 before them (if you were planning a kickstarter, why would you not be carefully picking apart what those guys did and working out how to implement it for your campaign? insane) is indeed baffling.

        • Hentzau says:

          Project Eternity’s initial page was awfully light on detail besides saying “We’re Obsidian, we have people who worked on all these games you liked, we’d like to make a new game that’s going to be like Baldur’s Gate” with the only bit of concept art being the infamous Free Palatinate of Dyrwood map. They had more detail on their plans than Elite does, sure, but it was (again) a very flimsy outline on which to ask for a million bucks. That they got it within 24 hours is neither here nor there.

  3. Darren says:

    These discussions about Kickstarter always seem to omit the fact that donations are 100% voluntary. If I commit some amount of money to a project, I am doing that of my own free will. If I make a poor choice–regardless of the honesty or ability of the project team–then it’s really my fault.

    People, as a collective, aren’t completely mindless. This is a case of Buyer Beware. Reasonable expectations about what you are doing (and really, you aren’t “buying” anything) and a clear evaluation of what the project is promising and who is doing it will solve a lot of problems before they even come up. Will people get burned, perhaps by unscrupulous individuals? Yes. But it’s an inherent risk. If you don’t like the risk, then wait and see if the final product actually materializes, read up on it, and, if it looks good, buy it then.

    But this kind of argument seems an awful lot like worrying about stupid people being manipulated and a lot less about actually giving potential donors a framework to evaluate projects, though there are certainly some elements in there. Let’s worry less about whether the company is behaving responsibly and more about whether donors understand how to judge them well to start with.

    • Hentzau says:

      It’s certainly on the people donating money to evaluate each project they’re pledging to in order to determine whether or not they can trust the company behind it — or not. I’m certainly rather aghast that they’ve already managed to rake in £450,000 on such a thin project outline, but none of the people who have already given them money will be able to claim later that it was anything other than their own goddamn fault.

      At the same time I think there’s something a little bit off on putting the quality control onus *solely* on the people donating money. I dunno, it seems a bit like blaming people who fall for phishing scams for not being cautious enough. A proliferation of bad Kickstarters is going to create an environment where anything that isn’t already known to you is treated with extreme suspicion, which is going to be absolutely poisonous when so much of the motivation behind Kickstarter is based on goodwill and trust.

      • Darren says:

        The big problem for increasing project-side accountability is that you run the risk of raising the bar so high that some people won’t even be able to afford creating enough material to start asking for funding, creating a catch-22.

        As for people becoming suspicious, that seems like it would be nearly inevitable even if there weren’t dishonest people. There are going to be perfectly legitimate projects run by perfectly honest people which will fail, and there will be successful projects which will fail to live up to expectations. Unless Kickstarter can think of some way to constantly attract new, bright-eyed, frankly naive donors, I would think some skepticism, even distrust, would creep in as a natural response. I also don’t think this would be a bad thing, as it would put pressure on the project side to be realistic in their ambitions and funding requests as well as better-prepared to demonstrate what they’ve done.

        • Hentzau says:

          You’re probably right; Kickstarter was always going to fall victim to this sort of thing as soon as people noticed the amounts of money being thrown around. It’s still a bit sad that Elite is bringing in so much money while Simon Roth’s Maia is going to struggle to reach its funding total, though.

  4. Andy says:

    You make some very good points, and you’re right about the £20 pledge being nothing more than a pre-order.

    The other pledge levels make no sense whatsoever – £40 to be part of the NPC naming database, one of at least 10,000 and given the size of Elite’s universe, you are unlikely to “meet” yourself.

    An extra £25 for a digital download of the soundtrack (OK, £15 if you take the £30 as the RRP and not the £20 early backer price)…

    £50 to be part of the second, and presumably final Beta?

    £100 to be part of the first beta??

    £200 to play the Alpha build???

    Really? Surely the beta testing should be open to all at the £20 level, at least it then justifies the ‘pre-order’ level of backing, the backers effectively become part of the project team. You can’t ask your customers to pay 10x the price to work for you as testers! I’m sure Frontier’s thinking is that they don’t want everyone to be a tester, but surely that should be achieved through having multiple £20 levels, and first come-first-served will grab a chance to test the game as a reward for having the faith to back the project from the start.

    • Hentzau says:

      It wasn’t until I saw the Elite kickstarter that I realised just how much money was being thrown around here. Some weird mental effect of it being in pounds rather than dollars, no doubt, and I knew that some backers were giving hundreds or even thousands of dollars to past projects, but they’re asking for a hell of a lot of money for anything more than the basics.

      (Which, again, they’re entitled to if they think people will pony up the cash, because this is Kickstarter and not a shop. I’m drawing my own conclusions from it, though.)

  5. Genejoke says:

    I honestly don’t have a problem with the amounts being asked for with E.D. but there should be more effort put into getting people to pledge, more promation and the like.
    The thing is i want to play elite 4, I’ve pledged the amount I’m willing to pay, if the KS is successful that is what I’ll pay. the only concern i have at present is the idea of monetising the game. Pay to win/advance is a terrible idea.

    • Hentzau says:

      That’s exactly the thing I don’t like about this Kickstarter. It’s not so much that they’re asking for quite a large amount of money, it’s that they’re asking for quite a large amount of money while running a spectacularly low-effort campaign. If they’re invested enough in making this game to take the risk of putting up a kickstarter I expect to see some enthusiasm on the part of the developer. Again, Star Citizen might have been even more ambitious and had similar pledge levels, but the amount of feedback and information coming from Chris Roberts and his company was insane. It was a game they clearly wanted to make. I’m not getting that from Elite.

  6. Huw Thomas says:

    Well, Frontier are making their pitch and people are deciding whether to back the project or not. I can’t see anything “dangerous”, untrustworthy or grasping about it. Naive maybe, in not understanding what would make a strong Kickstarter campaign, but then if they succeed it will be the naysayers who will be proven to have been naive. In the meantime, Elite/space sim fans can look at the offering, look at Braben/Frontier’s track record, and decide if they want to pledge.

    Due to the way Kickstarter works, if people pledge and the funding campaign fails, they lose nothing.

    • Hentzau says:

      And that’s a perfectly fair way of looking at it. I dunno, I just can’t look at it with that optimistic eye, though. Where you see naivete, I see cynicism.

  7. Netzbummler says:

    Hi Hentzau, you might want to have a look at Josh Parnell’s Kickstarter for Limited Theory (LT), for a spiritual successor not only to Elite but also to the young David Braben.

    Let me explain: like the original Elite (don’t know about Frontier), LT is being built purely on procedural generation. This includes everything from the universe to solar systems to ships and factions. It’s a great demonstration of what modern mathematics and computing technology can achieve.

    Secondly, Josh seems to exhibit the same enthusiasm towards his game and his fans that the young David Braben did. Back in the day I remember reading his interviews in gaming magazines where he was not only passionate (I grant that even to the old Dangerous David) but was also much less Peter Molyneux-like (as in being a big talker and largely failing to deliver his promises). I do hope that he’ll get his E:D campaign back on track, but in the meantime I have canceled my pledge to fund LT, which shows much more promise and effort.

    I hope my rant makes sense. It’s late, and English isn’t may native language.

  8. James says:

    I can’t believe what I am reading. C’mon people, this is the game we have all been waiting for these past 28 years. Surely its worth the risk of a small pledge. Why waste this opportunity with pessimistic comments. Why waste this unique chance of having ELITE back in our PC’s. Lets give it a try for the sake of ELITE!!! We can always comment after we play the game. We all have very high expectations for ELITE DANGEROUS, and surely unless David and his team builds the perfect game, many of us will be disapointed. However, at least, we would have done our part by helping David and his team. Anything else is in David Braben hands….who has proved himself with the original ELITE! Please, do not waste this unique opportunity. Thank you all.

    • Tony says:

      He may have proven himself with the original Elite, but little else since. Makes you wonder if Ian Bell was the brains of the outfit after all…

    • Hentzau says:

      And here we have the main problem with Kickstarter drives these days: they’re not asking for money for a game being made *now*. They’re asking for money for games that were made 15-20 or even 30 years ago. They’re trading on nostalgia, not creativity. Something about that rubs me up the wrong way.

  9. Hentzau says:

    Lots of responses to this one, which is interesting. I’ll accept that maybe Braben and his company just don’t really know how to run an effective fundraising effort on Kickstarter (although this is stretching credulity given that Star Citizen was running at exactly the same time.) It’s a far kinder conclusion than the one I jumped to in this piece, but it’s possible.

  10. Avramovic says:

    …so how you like me now?

  11. Anonymous says:

    Does anyone even read the comments down here?

    • Hentzau says:


      Also, to forestall any more comments on this piece from people posting from space-year 2014: judging from what I’ve seen of Elite: Dangerous now, this post might just be the wrongest post I ever make on this blog, and I’ll happily say so if it does turn out to be as good as it looks when I review it.

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