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Kickstart My Heart

Trent Seely

There's always been an alluring serendipity attached to Kickstarter. This crowd-funding website has allowed designers, independent artists, philanthropists, and anyone with a solid product or service idea the chance to pursue their dream by soliciting the consumers themselves for possible angel investment. The traditional dynamic for the funding of any business idea is to approach the bank and/or government for financial assistance. Generally speaking, receiving any amount of money from these parties required high-interest loans and the use of collateral. Crowd-funding flipped that dynamic by removing loans in favor of perk guarantees and placing no definitive timelines on project production. Instead of putting your house and personal income on the line for your dream project, you could now entice the public and use their funds up-front to cover the costs of research & development, marketing, and distribution. It's an interesting approach to investment that has led to technological innovations like the Pebble smart watch and OUYA Android micro-console, but it doesn't come without risk to the backers themselves.

What is owed to fans of a project when they support it monetarily? There seems to be a belief that the scope of a project should be limited to what is shown in the Kickstarter campaign itself. The way your project looks and the size it appears to be will ultimately affect how much money you are able to raise through crowd-funding, but is it taboo to change the scope of the project after a campaign has been successfully completed? Double Fine originally set a goal of $400,000 to cover the costs of development for what would eventually become Broken Age. It became the largest crowd-funded video game project at the time — fundraising over $3.45 million from more than 87,000 backers within one month. Things went quiet for quite some time, until July of 2013 when Tim Schafer reanalyzed the state of the project and realized that the completed game wouldn't be finished until 2015. The scope of the original project had grown since they became overfunded, and Double Fine resolved to release Broken Age in multiple acts over time instead of one final release. Regardless of the first act's final quality, the initial backlash to Schafer's announcement was loud and angry. Backers felt helpless and lied to by his initial campaign.

Like it or not, expectations are set by a Kickstarter campaign. The thought of the backer is usually "I give you this money now, and you send me the finished product (and maybe some related swag) when it's done." They want to know that they will get what has been promised to them. To that point, whenever a project is successfully crowd-funded, that producer is immediately accountable to all of the backers. Suddenly, creators are thrust into the public eye and all of their actions are placed under a microscope. The developer of the successfully funded indie RPG Soul Saga recently learned this after traveling to Japan on a Soul Saga-related trip and subsequently altering the main character's designs. There were debates among backers over whether it was a smart business move to go on this trip, as well as some frustration over the aesthetic changes. Many backers didn't expect so many post-Kickstarter changes to the project's scope and art style, and a few members of the Soul Saga community have since been speculating over how well their invested money is being managed.

As a counter-point, it's important to remember that, as a backer, you are only an investor and not a producer. In the cases of both Broken Age and Soul Saga, some backers have requested refunds and/or demanded that the creators change their approach to game design. While I think it's fair for the backers to pull their investment if they feel as though they won't like the product, it isn't their place to demand change to the project itself. The creator should be allowed to make whatever changes he/she deems fit during development. That includes altering aesthetics, gameplay, or scope in order to better align with updated budgets and the costs associated with porting to multiple platforms. Backers, in turn, should rightfully be allowed to voice their concerns and recommendations to the creator in a respectful manner. There has to be a give and take between these two parties for a transparent and conducive development environment to exist. Sometimes, those environments aren't even given a chance though.

There have indeed been Kickstarter projects in which creators have failed to deliver anything or had completely misrepresented what they were going to create. Unfortunately for backers, Kickstarter does not claim any responsibility for failed projects. In fact, the company only ensures that projects have met their basic community guidelines. While there is a legal requirement for creators to finish the project or return money to backers — which can give funders grounds to sue if they feel fit — you don't have much of a case unless Kickstarter believes the creator didn't make a good faith effort to complete their order. As such, every campaign you choose to fund will represent a risk for you as a backer. There are no final product guarantees, and that is one element of internet crowd-funding that's unlikely to change. If the thought of investing in something that may morph over time or fail sounds scary to you, I'd humbly like to request that you stop investing at all. Entrepreneurial endeavors aren't for the faint of heart.

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