Talk to me, or communication in crowdfunding

I've backed a lot of, 26, projects in Kickstarter.  Out of the projects I've backed 3 didn't manage to get enough funds to be successfully funded and were left licking their fingers, so on my part, I lost nothing on those and that leaves 23 that actually did get enough money to get into production.

The noble idea of crowdfunding is, that people give developers money up front in order to help them make the product they want to make, if there's no money in the conventional funding circles, like big publishing houses or angel investors. This, also, in theory, gives the developer more freedom to create the product just in the way they want, without no-one looking down their shoulder and demanding things to be cut or changed. I say in theory, as in many cases the people who back the project do tend to start behaving a bit like producers themselves, despite their individual financial contribution is counted in tens of dollars instead of millions.

When it comes to games people tend to be opinionated and especially if a game is a retro revival of something or a spiritual successor of some other, people have very strong ideas of what should and shout not happen with the development.

The thing I've noticed, even on my own behaviour is this: silence is bad. Silence is annoying. Silence is a mark that something is wrong. Silence is a mark that the whole project is going to hell. Then again, silence very often is just a mark of that the developer has poor communication skills. At least that's been the case in the most projects I've backed, as of the projects 12 have already delivered what they've promised, in good or bad, three more are close of being delivered and most of the rest are still early in the development.

Then again, I do think I've been lucky with the projects I've backed, as I've been picky as hell. There's only one I've backed that I know for sure is dead: Code Hero. It was a nice idea for a game that could be used to teach coding as well. It was funded at the same time Double Fine's Broken Age was, around 2012, but since then the last piece of communication from the developers came April 2014. It stated two things: their project coordinator was leaving the project and that multi-OS development is HARD. Since then it has been complete radio silence. The backers have been left in a limbo about the status of the project and the common consensus is that it's dead.

See, communication is important. Before the project comes out that is the only way the developer can ensure us that the project is still in the works. They don't have to be long, but at times just some small snippet is enough, like this is what we created today, can't wait to let you play this scene. See those pieces of communication can help strengthen the faith in a project. But not everyone is good at doing that.

I've noticed that the there's one thing that is common to almost all Kickstarted projects, no matter if they're big or small: they are very poor at estimating how much time things take to make. Sure, if a project get vastly overfunded and end up making a lot of additional content for it, it makes sense, that the original estimations aren't accurate anymore. But even so, even if the projects breaks the goal even with a small marginal and none of the stretch goals are met, even then the projects usually take a couple of months, in some cases even years longer to get finished. I don't blame the developers though, as the reasons for delays can vary quite a bit, and if the communication works, the developers can soften the delay.

As a lot of the crowdfunded projects are done by very small teams, it's easy to see how one struck of bad luck or bad design choices in the beginning of the project can avalanche into longer development time. I've seen projects where old-school developers were wary of using modern 3D engines, as when they used 3D for the first time back in the 1990's the technology was young and more cumbersome. (Hero-U, created by Corey and Lori Cole of Quest For Glory fame.)

The Cole's didn't do their due diligence in researching modern technologies but based their bias on the old knowledge of matters, thus causing themselves unneeded delay when they had to change the graphical style in the middle of the development. This also cost them money, as they had to do many things again. In the end, they had to do an another fundraiser in order to get more padding to their project and it was communication that saved them, as they managed to convince new and old backers to shell more money to a project in need.

Then again, a project can communicate, and in their communication, they can show a brave face and tell that all is going well. But behind those updates not that much really happens with the project, as the key members of the team might be having issues. On such project is SpaceVenture, by Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, who probably are more well known for Space Quest series.

I won't go to details of their personal issues that have caused the delay. But after they did finally open the lid, I did feel a bit cheated, as they had always indicated that all was going as planned, despite the game itself is running around 3 years late and is still not finished. I don't ask for full grimy details, and for me personally it felt like they ended up sharing a bit too much, but it would have been nicer to get a heads up sooner rather than later, not just the same "all is well"-song.

They did manage to push out a mini-game, Cluck Yegger, that is a part of the main game as well, but they also had a year-long hiatus on the main game as well, where nothing big was done to it. I do want to believe them when they say that all is well now, but still. As far communication goes, I can't help but feel that they dropped the ball and all the excitement I had towards the game has dwindled to near zero. It needs to be stated though that they are now trying to get the game out November 30th, so fingers crossed, or whatever is your local equivalent for wishing something to succeed.

There are two Kickstarter projects that have spoiled me with communication. They both are projects held by former Lucasfilm developers, the first one being Tim Schafer's Broken Age and the other being Ron Gilbert's Thimbleweed Park. The way they've executed communication and sharing to the backers is pretty much exemplary.

With Broken Age Tim Schafer's Double Fine did not only document the making of the game using text and images, they hired a film crew to make a documentary out of the whole ordeal. This documentary project resulted in 21 part series of making of the game and is freely available in Youtube. I recommend watching it, no matter if you liked the game or not, as it does give a nice view of what goes on in a game development project.

Then there's Thimbleweed Park by Ron Gilbert. His communication might not be in as grand scale as Double Fine's documentary is, but it's consistent and of all the projects I've backed it gives me the most coherent idea about where the game is going in development and what kind of obstacles are met or progress is made each week. Not only that, Ron Gilbert shares his insight about coding as well and as a whole, with weekly stand up meeting podcast between the people who are helping Ron in making the game, the blog is fun and informative read.

I've also liked the way Brian Fargo's helmed inXile does communication. Now, they don't communicate very frequently, not even now they have two crowdfunded games in the making. Torment: Tides of Numenera is at the moment in beta phase and that is the more active one in communication, as players send in their bug reports and what not and inXile devs answer when they have time. But with Bard's Tale IV their communication is very sparse. They've barely started the pre-production phase of the game and have, as is their custom, communicated when there has been something worthwhile to communicate.

 It is both efficient and frustrating way to communicate to the backers. And it's a method that requires very level head of the project lead. See, even when communication is more frequent people are still wondering when the next update comes. The more time there's between the updates, the more people start to ask after the updates. And yet, despite there can bee considerable time gaps between the updates, Brian Fargo seems to be quite happy providing the updates when he's good and ready. Of course, as it was with Torment, when the beta was close, a number of updates picked up, as they wanted to make sure that people were aware of this milestone.

This is an efficient method, as this way the developer can make meatier updates. There are more things to show and more things to talk about this way. But at the same time, it's frustrating for the backers, as people to have a tendency of wanting to be kept on the line what is happening with their meagre donation to the games development coffers.

Then again, Brian Fargo and inXile might have scored some faith points after delivering Wasteland 2, which also was a crowdfunded game. Personally, I didn't find it a great game, but they did, in my opinion, over deliver with it. It's a long, multipathed CRPG with a lot of stories to tell.

Lastly, I wanted to mention the juggernaut of crowdfunding, Star Citizen. They are not huge only in the amount they've managed to gather around, over 100 million dollars at the moment, they also provide a lot of communication. In fact, they do so much of it, in forms of videos, interviews, studio rapports and so on, that I find it overwhelming.  While I'm sure there are people out there who want to consume it all and be kept in a loop at all times, I find it all just too much.  I do see why they're doing that much of communication though: there's been a lot of attacks towards them in form of people claiming they're misusing the funds they've gathered, despite they've released some playable alpha content already and are apparently now committed to bringing more steady content updates to the players.

Star Citizen is still a long way to being completed though and I do understand why some people are increasingly sceptical about it, considering how much Chris Roberts has promised and what has been shown thus far.

Most of the projects are somewhere in between the previously mentioned. At worst they do updates that are boring or have very little actual content or they update that often, which in its own may lessen the interest towards the project. At best they post one or two meaty updates now and then, keeping the backers in the loop.

Well, this turned into a longer rant than I expected, but in the end, if you didn't get that from the main bulk of the text, I think that communication is important. Kinda.