Kickstarter, the US crowd-source funding website, has been opened up to UK projects for the first time. With the government considering tax breaks for one of the UK’s fastest-growing industries (digital and media) – the largest in Europe – Kickstarter’s move might just be the best thing that ever happened to British video games developers. Is it?
In a word, yes. Kickstarter’s unique model – a model that hasn’t really been possible before now, excepting very large social enterprise funding schemes – works like a good old staple of the written publishing industry: the advance. Back in the day, when the written word was king, a publisher would offer a writer an advance – a sum of money based solely on a proposal – to go ahead and support his or herself while writing. With the growth of publishing and distribution agency models (like the Amazon Kindle Store and Apple’s iBookstore), advances have started to squeeze. Publishers are happier to offer a cut of any potential proceeds rather than stump up money at the beginning of writing. As a result, starting up writing is difficult. No publisher is willing to pay you a fee while you write.
Take a look now at the games industry. In a way, video games have always been agency-managed. Before large agency distribution systems, like Steam and Apple’s App Store, individual retailers acted as agencies on the behalf of the publishers. They sold the product and took a cut of the profits. Online distribution is no different, except that the volumes are larger. When the volumes are larger, the cuts are slimmer. That means that any starting developer has to gamble quite a lot on investing time making a game – there’s a high chance that they’ll see no returns whatsoever.
Advances have never really existed in the video games world. Publishers have either tended to absorb promising studios and have them work as salaried in-house employees, or negotiate distribution deals (now rarer as developers can typically ship directly to the ‘retailer’, or digital distribution portal). Very, very rarely would a publisher provide funds for a small studio to work on a project.
Of course, this is where Kickstarter radicalises the video games development industry. Advances are now a thing. Indie developers can have an idea and pitch it to a crowd. That crowd could then provide an advance to keep them clothed, fed and housed while they work on the idea.
But the industry disruption goes deeper than just the advance. Marketing, outreach and sales are no longer handled by the publisher – they’re handled by the Indie dev team themselves. Kickstarter provides marketing – not least to your immediate backers, but also to friends and families of those backers – as well as direct sales (‘pledges’ of financial support are typically rewarded by games licences, as well as novelty items such as T-shirts). So what we have is a no-strings advance that carries satisfied customers from the word go. It’s a massive change.
So that’s why Kickstarter is so exciting for Indie developer studios. Now add to it the growing simplicity of video games programming overall, with most games development environments now able to run on modern travel-friendly laptops instead of static desktop machines or specialised gaming computers. Devs don’t need to whittle away at a game locked indoors, with little hope of financial reward or recognition. Kickstarter’s streamlining of fundraising is complementary to rapid indie games development – it removes uncertainty. As we’ve known for years, the threat of uncertainty is a serious barrier to creativity. And that’s why Kickstarter, along with all the other awesome technology cropping up right now, is heaven for indie developers. Get over there and start supporting projects you fancy, right now.