Now must be a very exciting time for content creators, instead of relying on big publishers who are likely to take their vision and twist it into something unrecognisable, platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have given them the opportunity to take their vision to the masses and ask for support. More recently Steam has thrown itself into the ring by offering Early Access to games currently in development.
I am quite firmly not an early adopter. I am the kind of person who will read up on the product or service months before they are available, gather as much data to make an informed decision, read reviews once they are available, then make an impulse buy based purely on emotion and how nice the sales person was. I am that person. I guess you could say I am an Early Majority adopter, I’ll jump in once I see it has been proven, I guess this is why I haven’t funded anything yet. I still think crowd funding is great though! I love the idea of helping the underdog make something they believe in, and I especially like the ones that offer good rewards for being an early adopter/funder. The best ones are the rewards that relate to the product in some way, or are just really cool and weird. Matt Porterfield tattooed the initials of backers of a certain level onto his arm, which while crazy, is a very cool way to say, “Hey, thank you for believing in me, I will never forget this gift.”
While the current buzzword is ‘crowdfunding’ the reality is that this money is a gift. If you give the money, you do not get it back if the project doesn’t comes to fruition. The platform themselves set guidelines, but ultimately they do not police the projects, and they have no legal way of forcing them to return money or complete the projects. There have been several projects that in hindsight look like scams, or were wildly overpromised by the creators, one of the worst is ZionEyes. Which means, due to this lack of accountability for the content creators, the burden is on the funder to be discerning with their money.
I mentioned earlier that Steam has platform called Early Access. Unlike Kickstarter and Indiegogo which has levels of support to raise funds, Early Access follows the early Minecraft model of, “You buy the game now in beta, you get free updates for supporting us”. It is not really a way to raise funds like other platforms, but more like crowdfunding Q&A, or crowdtesting, something similar to what this German company, Testbirds do. Instead of being paid to do it, you as a funder pay for the privilege. You get early access, sure, but you by no means get anything close to a finished game. What you do get is to watch it unfurl before it is released to the general public. While I’m unlikely to participate, I can see the appeal.
Knowing all this about the service, I cannot deny that I was a bit taken aback when I saw this. This costs more than a brand new AAA title, and the game is only in Alpha! Alpha testing is usually reserved for internal testing, generally at this stage the game can still be totally changed, at this stage there will be so, many, bugs. The reasoning for the high price, is that it reflects the Kickstarter and while I can see why they wanted to both take advantage of Steam’s user base and not upset their previous Kickstarter backers by offering a lower price I still think it was a poor move. You can’t treat Facebook like Myspace, or Tumblr like Twitter. They all look roughly the same, but they offer vastly different services.
Steam as a platform is known for their seasonal sales, and their frequent discounts. It is not uncommon for gamers to spend huge amounts of money on games during these big discount periods, and to anticipate them as if they were a major sporting event. With that in mind it is hard to see Early Access as yet another Kickstarter, I think of it more like Kickstarter+. It gives videogame developers a direct line to their consumers, they can roll out updates using the Steam framework, which I imagine cuts down on a lot of additional cost.
The Steam forums are not flattering about the price point for Planetary Annihilation, I think the reality is that many are offended at the price, because even after such a high price point, the funder will only get a standard version of the game. It’s up to the developer or the publisher to set whatever price they like, it is their product. They don’t owe the funders anything more than they promised, they haven’t obscured the truth, they’ve been honest throughout. However, it all feels like it’s something for nothing. Like other platforms, the funders are left with no guarantee that this investment will pay off.
I can’t blame the developers of Planetary Annihilation for trying to get as much money for their project as possible, I guess I’m just urging people to be a bit more discerning. Paying $90/£68 to test an unfinished game, and to only receive the finished standard version (which is likely to cost less than your gift) as a reward seems like a very, poor trade off to me. Who knows! They might ship the game ahead of schedule, refund all their backers the difference, upgrade them to a better package or do something equally cool to say thank you. But when you have people willing to tattoo themselves to say thank you, or companies willing to go above and beyond by doing things like giving out free extra copies of their game to backers, it is not hard to see why many gamers are in disbelief.
Crowdfunding and crowd testing are wonderful things, the developers get instant feedback, and the consumer gets to help shape the finished product. In a time where companies are cutting back on costs, outsourcing jobs and only hiring part time, we have to be careful that we the consumer are not being taken advantage of. Both services are great when used as supplementary to fairly paid full time staff. As crowdsourcing becomes more mainstream, and bigger fish wade into the pool asking for our help and support, we should in turn demand more of them, and not let them turn this great idea into yet another way they squeeze us for money.