Could Kickstarter Damage Studios' Relationships With Publishers?

Let's suppose, for just a minute, that you are a developer. You've had some successes and a loyal following, but lately, you've taken some jobs that haven't turned out so well. You've drifted away from your roots in order to keep your independent studio afloat with much needed capital.

The last project you worked on turned out pretty well. People liked it, but there were a lot of technical issues that marred the experience and emerged in a number of reviews. Going into the relationship with the publisher, you were either overconfident or unable to negotiate a better deal, and let part of your funding hinge on an 85 Metacritic score. You missed that mark … by one, measly point.

You're unhappy. You know what the contract said, but you feel, deep down, that the publisher should have cut you some slack and, maybe, paid out some of the bonus as a gesture of good will. No matter how hard you try to rationalise it and let logic prevail, you're a little bitter.

Thankfully, there's a new trend called Kickstarter that is getting some traction. Double Fine and Tim Schafer and, now, inXile and Brian Fargo meeting with huge success seeing "unmarketable" projects take off with a huge influx of cash.

"Why not us?" a voice whispers in your ear. "That loyal following would heap money on us."

And so you mention your interest publicly. You're on the road to a huge Kickstarter pile of money and a game with no strings attached. No one will try to make you change it. No one will focus test your design. It's yours, and no publisher can take it away from you.

Unfortunately, you've forgotten one thing. You've got two other projects in progress with two different publishers. How will they react?

Enter Obsidian.

While [Ripten was] unable to independently confirm this, a report on Kotaku indicates the California-based studio's rumoured next-generation project with Microsoft has been cancelled. While there could be any number of reasons for this, such as missed milestones or a difference of creative vision, when I heard the rumour, I couldn't help but wonder, "What do publishers think of developers striking out on their own?" Could Microsoft have killed the project because of Obsidian's public Kickstarter aspirations?

Developers pitching projects directly to gamers unbalances the equation. No longer are publishers the arbiters of good taste. Their power is eroding.

Developers going outside the standard model, pitching projects directly to gamers, unbalances the equation. No longer are publishers the arbiters of good taste, determining what the public will and won't buy, what we crave and what we loathe. Their power is eroding under the crashing waves of backer payments small and large. What's more, one thing has resonated with the advent of successful crowd-sourcing by quality developers. The message is clear, "We don't need publishers." Tim Schafer and company were a bit more tactful than that, though, when they proposed their Double Fine Adventure project.

"To finance the production, promotion and distribution of these massive undertakings, companies like Double Fine have to rely on external sources like publishers, investment firms or loans. And while they fulfil an important role in the process, their involvement also comes with significant strings attached that can pull the game in the wrong directions or even cancel its production altogether."

Brian Fargo was a bit more pointed in his hilarious pitch video for Wasteland 2 and write-up on their Kickstarter page.

"This is probably the last chance for a Wasteland sequel. We have tried to pitch this game multiple times to game publishers, but they've baulked. They don't think there's any interest in a solid, old-school type of game. This is our shot at proving them wrong."

And then there's Obsidian. They merely promoted possible Kickstarter ideas on their website, taking the first steps on the path to a life without publishers. And while that may seem attractive, their reality is an ailing studio currently being kept afloat by "dirty, unwanted publisher money". One can't help but wonder how a publisher, who has put a significant amount of money into a studio, must feel about their partner shouting, "Damn the man!"

If this is the case-if publishers really are seething at the idea of Kickstarter-funded games-could this be setting up a war? Will we see successful Kickstarted developers locked out of publishing deals? Maybe we are going to see new clauses in contracts emerging that prevent developers from crowd-sourcing for a period of time surrounding launch of a publisher-funded project?

One thing is certain, the Kickstarter phenomenon is only just getting started. When Double Fine rocketed to success, there is no doubt that every third-party developer perked up and wondered, "What if?" Could Obsidian's rumoured disconnect with Microsoft be the result of the developer publicly wondering "what if" themselves?

We knew it would change the landscape, and the story is still developing. You can be sure that we're keeping a close eye on how the industry dynamics are shifting in response.

Michael Futter is the managing editor of RipTen. Follow him on Twitter.

Originally appeared March 17, 2012 on RipTen. Republished with permission


    I hope that publishers are very much worried about Kickstarter, it's the whole point of it, publishers have had too much of a say for too long, and sure you might see some issues like this for a while, if it's true but as long as the public support them and make sure their Kickstarter projects get off the ground then we will see the change the industry really needs.

    I hope Obsidian launch a Kickstarter. All of my dollars.

    Kickstarter lets us decide what games to fund. For a gamer, it is in no way a bad thing. In reality, it's like a pre-order but for things we want. Maybe publishers should look at that want thing again.

      Until you 'buy' a bunch of games which fail or ask for more funding... before failing.
      Or just turn out to not be very good.

        As opposed to all publisher based games, which are all masterpieces. My hope is that the funding community of X game has enough collective good taste to steer the development in a direction agreed upon by the majority of fans/supporters. If it pans out this way it'll be a definite improvement on the existing method of endless clones based on minimum risk.

    I do have to wonder what happens when one of these appeals takes the money, squanders it, and fails to release a game/releases a game so poor no one would pay actual money for it. And frankly, if anyone was likely to be the first, it would be Obsidian. By many accounts Bethesda had to spend a lot of money patching FO:NV post-release because Obsidian did such a poor job of it. Its why I don't have much sympathy about their not getting a bonus.

      I was wondering this myself. What contractual obligation is there for a deadline of production? What protects us from a situation of Duke Nukem Forever or a situation where someone says ''Oh the game isnt working so we shitcanned it''... all valid, very valid questions in the world of gaming I'm afraid. What then? Don't believe you'd get your money back, it's been spent...

        Well it's not your money so what do you care.

          What do I care? It's a legitimate question. Before donating I'd like to know I'm not wasting my money. Your answers kinda redundant...

            If it's an intentional money grab, it can be a case of fraud as is prosecutable. If it's a failure to deliver despite genuine efforts, the law is a little murky. The only feasible path would be a class action lawsuit, but more likely that money is better off written off as a failed investment.

            It's not that different from any venture investment, except in the case of most kickstarter-funded games, we get the game or merchandise as the reward instead of, say, a cut of the eventual profits. (and our individual contributions are smaller, thus less risk.) Sometimes investments fail. That's the nature of investing. You can't go into it with the absolute certainty of getting what you wanted.

            Most people trust Double Fine to deliver everything they promised, because they have a good record of it - i.e. they're a 'safe' investment. The game might be rubbish, but there's a decent chance it won't be. If you start backing studios and creators with dotty records, you're taking the same gamble as any publisher in the same position, just one a much, much smaller scale.

            We can't let ourself get confused between the legalities of pre-ordering and the legalities of venture investment.

              Ree, superb answer and your last line is a definite point of consideration...

    "No one will try to make you change it." Ha! Just ask Bioware. Hate to think what some gamers will want to change once they see themselves as investors.

    Oh poor Bethesda . Fallout NV needed some patches for the FIVE MILLION COPIES SOLD.

    i think that anything that reduces the power/influence of publishers is good.

    More competition - and more independent games - can only be a good thing. It forces bigger publishers and developers into offering better products if there is a cheaper (and in many cases) a better alternative.

    I think kickstarter also offers marketing for projects - look at all the press in the last few weeks. I'm not sure that this will last however, but its good for all the stuff that has been announced/funded recently.

    I'm worried that it will start a sense of entitlement with those who fund however.

    The are three things that irk me about Kickstarter. First is the concept of putting down money on something that is not finished and quantifiable in quality. I know there are many businesses that have this system but for me games for me have always been a trade of money directly for the product at hand.

    Secondly that it is not spontaneously viable and popular all of a sudden when no actual completed products have proven the system yet!

    Oh and third, many developers are using incentives like "Get yourself/your thing in the game!" to get more backing. NO NO NO NO NO

      It's investing, not pre-buying the game - the rewards just make it look like that, when in reality your reward for investing is a piece of the company's product. Like investing in a bakery and getting a cake out of it a year later - you might not even like the cake you get, it might be too small or ugly or be passionfruit-flavoured, that's the risk. The result is never quantifiable until afterwards. It's the same for any project or business. Microsoft doesn't have any guarantee that giving publishing money to Obsidian or any of their third parties will result in a good game either.

      I agree though, get yourself/get your thing in the game as rewards makes me cringe. I liked Double Fine's ideas of thanking people in the credits or having the production artist do them a thank you portrait in the game style, but if we start doing stuff like that as backers or develop too much a sense of entitlement, that makes us as awful as the pubslihers.

        It's not investing, it's pre-buying. If it was an investment you would get a cut of the proceeds. At the end of it you don't OWN the game, you only have a license to play it (ie like all games). And unlike the publishers you also don't have any legal recourse if the game isn't produced, or heaven forbid, sux.

        I'm just waiting for the shysters to get in on the act, make a couple mil and disappear with everyone's money.

        Don't get me wrong though, I love the idea of Kickstarter, but I'll wait until there's an actual proven track record of successful games produced before considering it a success.

    While I love the idea of upsetting the apple cart and knocking the crown of the publishers a little, you gotta wonder what the saturation point is for crowd sourced funding - 2 or 3 studios using crowd sourced funding, fine. But 20 different studios..?

      I think it will only ever work for legends like Schafer and fondly remembered IPs like Wasteland.

      Then again, it could be great for an in-development game to raise funds to add a particular feature that the publishers think Joe Average won't like.

      Indeed. It's great now, when its a minority situation and its easy to pick and choose. But what about when everyone jumps on board with the HEY ME TOO attitude. We've had worthy projects so far. Wasteland really should get a sequel, it was great. Schaeffer has delivered nothing BUT quality. Im sorry but Obsidian? Really? After New Vegas, a bland and boring game with interesting gameplay mechanics and so many bugs you needed a pest control expert to get rid of them... I wouldn't donate money to them? They're not the Black Isle I remember them to be for gods sake, people hold onto that idea about them and they're just not any more. So yeah, I'd be very surprised if Kickstarter isn't eventually used and abused then abandoned by developers rather quickly...

      Cmon guys, Economics 101. Given time, the market will find it's own equilibrium point. You can pick and choose which projects you donate to, noone is forcing you to part with your precious dollars.

        Economics 101 actually dictates that the idea starts off as a well meaning, useful idea, which is then corporatised, plundered, has the guts ripped out of it and is then exploited beyond belief. Equilibrium points in economics are a thing of the distant past.

    publishers = middle man

    I agree I don't see Kickstarter being viable for anyone other than industry veterans with a reputation. Atleast on a large scale of money like Double Fine has received. Most indie projects are lucky to get a couple thousand dollars no where near enough to fund a 12 month development period for even one person. The only way I see it working is for them to have an existing demo or prototype, i.e. like the guys doing Hawken.

    Double Fine would not have got the attention either if it wasn't for the media helping to propagate the word about the project which in turn was because of who was involved, same for Brian Fargo.

      Agreed. For whole games, this isn't going to work for a lot of unknown devs. However, for an indie developer trying to raise $5k-$10k so he can create something of substance, rather than just a pitch (ie a strange but interesting concept) that he can show to a studio, a workable beta, or playable demo, this is where KS will pay off for the small-time devs.

      That's where you are wrong , take a look at the Faster Than Light kickstarter which is a relatively obscure indie development.

      All they wanted was a mere $10,000 but yet they have managed to raise over $100,000 so far. Maybe its a fluke, but I am more inclined to believe that people are prepared to support those projects which offer up interesting and innovative games not available from publishers who are only interested in shoveling out the next iteration of their derivative and uninspiring FPS.

    I'd love to see the reaction of the next CoD game getting put up into Kickstarter.

    I think you'll see developers creating successes through crowd sourcing, then publishers offering money to them to get in on the action.

    While I like the idea of developers being able to strike out on their own when publishers give them the cold shoulder, being able to follow through on such a plan can be challenging.
    It also depends on how much of a following they can attract and if their profile isn't high enough, there might not be enough money.
    This may be a solution to the "if it's not fps/rpg it won't sell" mentality currently gaining strength with publishers and return variety to the horizon.
    If nothing else, maybe it will force publishers to give some consideration to consumers, fans and developers instead of just their stockholders and the bottom line.

    Fuck the publishers.
    They bring down the game industry.

    I say more big name developers should ditch publishers entirely and follow this method of gamer backing.

    In many ways kickstarter isn't anything new. There have been games that offer preorder the full game, play the alpha and beta now(minecraft, ns2, overgrowth, interstellar marines). As you noticed, those games I mentioned are all indie games, and they all do decently in my opinion.

    It's really quite simple, you look at each game developer asking for funding, see what they're offering, and either agree, disagree, or suggest changes that will make you agree. Lumping a buzzword like kickstarter on and then categorising all games like this the same way is the problem. We really do have to look at each individual project and say yay or nay.

      What is with this crap? Every article about Kickstarter I see, someone comes along with stupid comments along the lines of "LOL this isnt new". Its just pointless. What does this kind of comment achieve?

    Would like to see how far this will go. With all the pieces in place for PC at least for developers to make, market and most importantly distribute your product I don't understand why more developers walk away from publishers and take their fans with them.

    This idea is good in theory for indie devs but I dont think it will take long before major studios try to take advantage of these programs and try to subsidise their own budgets and lower their risks money wise and other on their products and then still expect people fork out and buy their products and dlc etc at inflated prices. Poeple are now already paying often double or more on games with dlc and passes etc now with this method you will be paying more again.

    Wow, I always looked at Kickstarter as some kind of hipster thing for video game developers, but this article makes me realize that Kickstarter is going to make some massive changes in the industry. I just hope that companies don't take the kinds of steps this article suggests.

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