One method of raising money that some game developers started using in the late 2000s and early 2010s is crowdfunding. Check out popular crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo and you can find plenty of video game projects on offer, all of which are asking for your money.
In exchange for supporting a project or helping it get started, many crowdfunded games offer players their own copy – which can be a digital download or a physical boxed version depending on the title and the amount of money invested – to be delivered when the game is finally ready. This transactional approach to crowdfunding, combined with prices that are often comparable to the “standard” price of a brand-new game, has led many players to consider crowdfunding as an extended form of pre-ordering.
Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth, and this fundamental misunderstanding has caused an awful lot of disappointment in recent years. It isn’t the fault of individual players, many of whom simply saw an exciting-sounding game and wanted to place their order as early as possible. Instead the fault really lies with the way these crowdfunding platforms and individual developers market their products.
When placing a pre-order for a video game, players are almost always committing their money to a project that is already fully-funded. Perhaps an indie developer has taken out a loan, or maybe we’re talking about a game produced by a larger publisher with the financial resources of their corporation. Regardless, by the time pre-orders go live for practically every title, the game’s development costs are covered and a release is assured. Some games receive delays even after accepting pre-orders, but even then a delay is usually a matter of weeks, months, or a year at the most – and the title is still being worked on.
Pre-orders are purchases – they’re a transaction between the player and the platform, shop, or publisher. As such they’re subject to a range of consumer protection laws, the most significant of which is the right to be refunded. If a pre-ordered game is cancelled, or even if a player changes their mind before release, they can simply contact the retailer or publisher and request a refund without too much hassle.
Crowdfunding, as many players have found to their cost, doesn’t work this way at all. At a fundamental level, crowdfunding is akin to a donation or an investment. As anyone who’s ever played the stock market or cryptocurrency can tell you, the value of investments can change over time, and as the developer or company you’ve donated to takes your money to use in the process of developing their game, there are no guarantees. Caveat emptor indeed.
Creating anything is an incredibly difficult and complicated process, and all manner of different unforeseeable situations can adversely impact a project. The current pandemic is an example – many films, television shows, and video games saw their production disrupted by events completely beyond their control. In short, a project may not always go as intended, and even if production goes as smoothly as possible, the end result may be radically different from its creator’s original vision.
For players who’ve donated to a crowdfunding project, this can be incredibly hard to take. They feel they were promised a particular kind of game within a given timeframe, but for any one of a thousand different reasons the game they got doesn’t align with those initial expectations or developer promises. Unfortunately there really isn’t much that can be done about this.
Two examples come to mind of crowdfunding projects that didn’t go to plan. On a personal note I’ve got 2019’s Shenmue III. This title, which dedicated fans of a long-dead pair of games managed to raise an astonishing $7 million to help create, had one job as far as I was concerned: finish the story. Shenmue II had ended on a cliffhanger, and fans wanted to see protagonist Ryo Hazuki bring his quest for revenge to a conclusion. But for reasons I find utterly inexplicable, that didn’t happen. Shenmue III didn’t finish Ryo’s story.
The second example is one of the most egregious crowdfunding disasters of all time: Star Citizen. In development now for over eleven years, the game is nowhere near ready for release. While a small part of the game is available in an early alpha state, developers Cloud Imperium Games have mismanaged the project in truly epic style. With well over $300 million raised – almost all of which has been spent – Star Citizen is a complete disaster, with many of its original backers and fans now calling it a “scam” for the way it took their money.
Shenmue III had specific problems with its story as a result of its creator being unwilling to make cuts to the game’s bloated narrative. Star Citizen is an example of a developer getting completely out of their depth. With the amount of money Cloud Imperium Games raised growing, they felt the need to promise more features for the game. But more features meant more development time, which meant more money was needed to keep the lights on, and in order to raise more money they promised more features… leading to a catastrophic spiral from which the game will never escape. It’s a case of feature creep on an unprecedented scale.
There are plenty of other examples of disappointing crowdfunded games, including titles that ended up baring little resemblance to what had been originally promised and, of course, many games that simply never made it that far, being cancelled or simply vanishing without ever releasing so much as a teaser trailer.
These things will always happen. In the games industry there are many examples of titles that entered development but never made it to release, including some whose details have subsequently leaked out – like Star Wars 1313, Rockstar’s Agent, and Prey 2. The key difference with those titles is that they were never being “sold” – players didn’t have to part with their money, meaning the only negative consequence of these cancellations is disappointment. On the rare occasion where a game has been cancelled after pre-orders were available that money is able to be refunded.
Because of the way crowdfunding works, players can be left out of pocket – some to the tune of thousands of pounds or dollars – if a project doesn’t go to plan. And because of the way many crowdfunded titles are marketed, players who believe that they essentially pre-ordered a game or engaged in a transaction are understandably upset. This is why we all need to educate ourselves and understand the fundamental difference between pre-ordering a game and participating in a crowdfunding campaign.
The best way I can explain it is like this:
Pre-ordering means you’re buying a game and engaging in a transaction with a company. They have already committed the financial resources to making the game, and while it can still turn out to be disappointing for all manner of reasons, your money is safe and in almost every case you’ll be able to get a refund.
Pre-ordering is a purchase; the proceeds go to the developer, publisher, and/or shop as proceeds for work already completed.
Crowdfunding is donating to a project. You aren’t purchasing anything – not even if a copy of the game is listed as a “reward” for investing your money. Your money is going to be taken by the developer to be used as part of the game’s creation, not to make a profit on a game they have already committed to making. Because a lot can go wrong or simply change during the creation of a video game, there’s a higher chance that when the game eventually releases it won’t be exactly what you expected – if it even releases at all. In any case your money is almost certainly gone, and unless you can afford to lawyer up or prove that a project was a deliberate scam or con, perpetrated by someone with no intention of creating a video game, you won’t be able to get it back.
Crowdfunding is a donation; the money is a gift which goes directly to the developer so they can fund the game’s creation.
Speaking for myself, I’ve never donated to a crowdfunding campaign. Even when it came to titles like the aforementioned Shenmue III I simply concluded that I don’t have the money to lose. As someone on a low income my budget for video games – and any other entertainment product – is already low, so the idea of investing in the creation of something, no matter how “cool” it might sound, is something I’m unwilling to commit to.
Sadly, some of these failures and disappointments will lead to fewer players being willing to donate their money to crowdfunding campaigns in future. That will have an effect on some smaller independent developers for whom crowdfunding may be the only viable method of fundraising to bring their dream to life. In some cases we can lay the blame at the feet of large companies or wealthy individuals who essentially “abused” the crowdfunding model to create projects they could almost certainly have afforded to fund out of their own pockets. But some of the blame also lies at the feet of developers like Cloud Imperium Games, who have failed to deliver what they promised after more than a decade – while trying to convince players to buy in-game items that can cost upwards of $1,000. The whole thing gives crowdfunding a bad name.
Your money is your own, and how you choose to spend it, donate it, or invest it is up to you. I would never tell anyone not to participate in a crowdfunding campaign, because at the end of the day it’s a personal decision. The gambler’s advice is always worth bearing in mind, though: “never invest more than you can afford to lose.” That’s true of poker games and it’s true of crowdfunding too.
I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a while; it was one of the articles I had in mind when I first created this website almost two years ago. Having spoken with several acquaintances who felt “scammed” by a crowdfunding project gone wrong, and seeing many comments and criticisms online of titles like Star Citizen from irate backers who feel – wrongly, I’m afraid – that they had something akin to a purchase guarantee or pre-order, I wanted to add my two cents to the conversation.
It’s my firm view that crowdfunding and pre-ordering are very different things, no matter how a project may be marketed. Some companies and individuals definitely cross a line, or come close to it, with how they talk about their projects and try to convince people to part with their money. But at the end of the day it’s up to us as individuals to make sure we understand what we’re getting into before we make any kind of financial commitment.
All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective developer, studio, publisher, etc. Some stock images courtesy of Pixabay. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.