The Schafer stigma: How his successful Kickstarter went to your head

I first heard about Kickstarter at San Diego Comic-Con 2010 in an early morning panel about black writers and artists in the graphic-novel industry, titled "Nappy Hour." I was there to secure a seat in the following panel -- which was a Dark Horse feature and may have included an appearance by the wonderful Gerard Way, writer of The Umbrella Academy and singer in this amazing band you probably haven't heard of (don't judge me) -- but "Nappy Hour" turned out to be one of the best presentations I saw that weekend.

Throughout the panel, author and performer Pam Noles mentioned Kickstarter as an underground, free-spirited way of funding creative projects, and said she had used it to fund a few of her own endeavors. I imagined an online co-op of artists and philanthropists holding hands and running through rich, green fields together, composing sonnets about how wonderful everything was, and supporting only the most remarkable of projects. When I got home and checked it out myself, I found a site similar to Etsy, but where the items for sale were half-finished, semi-formed ideas from people who seemed dedicated to carrying them out.

I thought it was wonderful.

Kickstarter isn't a new idea. The site itself was established in 2009, and since then Joystiq alone has written about the crowd-powered group over 270 times. Our focus has been to keep readers informed about projects we think are worthy of your attention, most of them from indie studios or creative gaming offshoots, including documentaries, web shows, and video-game music endeavors. Not all of these projects were successfully funded, but that's partly because until this year not everyone knew what Kickstarter was all about.

And then Double Fine's adventure happened.

With Double Fine's campaign, Schafer brought mainstream gaming focus (and dollars) to Kickstarter's version of crowd-sourced funding, raising more than $1 million in less than 24 hours, and currently resting at almost $2.5 million, with 12 more days of fundraising to go. And still, it seems difficult for some people to agree on what Kickstarter actually does -- if it's a venture-capital or charity platform, or if a pledge is a donation, an investment, a long-term pre-order, or a scam. From our own comments:

"Why do ignorant people keep calling kickstarter 'Donations', it's not. It's a fancy long-term preorder with multiple teirs [Sic]. You pay what you want for the product and what you get is based on what you pay."

"What puzzles me more is how the whole crowd sourcing phenomenon is ultimately supposed to work. It's really just a modernized version of asking for money.... The other issue is that this is nothing like VC. This is donation, not investment."

This is strange, because what Kickstarter does is unambiguous. It provides a forum for people to easily advertise their creative endeavors, and it allows those interested in specific projects to contribute financially. Projects only take the money if they are fully backed, Kickstarter keeps itself alive by taking 5 percent of any funds raised, and that's how it works -- really. There's no point in arguing over facts.

Perhaps people are confused about the intent behind individual Kickstarter projects. Schafer, after all, is the head of an established development studio, and even though he explains that being a well-known developer doesn't mean it makes enough cash to fund every project, some people may wonder if he's simply side-stepping publishers to take advantage of naïve fanboys. More from our own comments:

"So this "Kickstarter" thing is so we, the consumers, can help fund a developer? Nice idea, but isn't that what investors and publishers are for?"

"For ten bucks, I should get 50% of the profits."

"So we donate to help fund the game so that we can pay for it when it's released?"

Others are so suspicious of newfangled money-related transactions that their mistrust extends to truly independent, low-budget game-development projects, including Cipher Prime's recent Kickstarter for Auditorium 2: Duet. However, now it's easy to couch uneasiness about the entire process with a simple, "Kickstarter is so mainstream, dude."

"Wow, this has been like Kickstarterstiq lately..."

"Way too many Kickstarter projects going on."

"Kickstarter is a sure fire way to fail in the long run. Too many people with too many projects they 'believe in' begging for money creates the YouTube effect. So many people flooding a gateway with 'plz we need monies 4 project' and then half the time the "reward" for giving different "levels" of donations are increasingly pathetic."

"Not saying Cipher Prime will do the same, but Tim Schafer wanting to to a classic point and click vs. a very specific sequel to a very specific game are not equally attractive, I think this Kickstarted project should have had broader horizons."

"First it was Double Fine and now alot of developers are jumping on the Kickstarter bandwagon. I wish the Auditorium devs the best of luck on meeting their goal and this coming out for other consoles. I think it will quickly be a trend and see more and more join the movement."

Again, Kickstarter has been around since 2009, and the idea of "giving money to things you like" isn't a particularly new one. Cipher Prime's Will Stallwood is aware of the dubiousness created by Double Fine, and even though he had a campaign for Auditorium 2: Duet planned months before Double Fine's rabid Kickstarter success, he found it still affected his team's perspective.

"To be honest, we have talked about this at length in the office," Stallwood says. "We never really came up with a solid decision one way or the other. I do think the really great thing Double Fine has done is expose a much more realistic idea of what a budget looks like for a game."

Stallwood says his Kickstarter isn't about ripping anyone off, and if it doesn't raise its full $60,000 (half of Duet's full development budget) in 29 more days, Cipher Prime will rely on its savings for a few months, and then possibly stop giving themselves pay checks and take on part-time jobs to keep the studio going. Take a look at a breakdown of Cipher Prime's monthly costs here for an idea of what "living off savings" would really mean.

"If the Kickstarter succeeds, we don't have to worry about that and we will make an awesome product we've always wanted to make," Stallwood responds to Joystiq commenters. "We'll also know that there were enough people interested in the game for us to bring it into existence in the first place.

"We believe that our games are better when we're spending all our time making them. But ultimately it comes down to a lifestyle decision. We would rather live hand-to-mouth spending hours doing what we love instead of earning a little extra doing what we're not interested in or only mildly interested in. If the world gives us a chance to do that, we'll do that. This doesn't puzzle me at all."

Not all Kickstarter projects are out to suck ignorant people's wallets dry -- they are vetted by Kickstarter before they can advertise on the site, if that's any consolation -- and the entire debate around Kickstarter's motives can be summed up in one phrase: Loosen up.

Kickstarter is poised to generate more money for creative projects than the National Endowment for the Arts this year, expecting to raise $150 million. More creativity can mean more innovation, brighter ideas, broader perspectives and a stronger national role in global society. It's a shame money has to get in the way of intellectual or societal progress, but it does. Kickstarter aims to rectify that without asking for any handouts -- all it asks for is attention.

A handful of people will see value in supporting someone's steampunk clothing line, while others will want a package of authentic New Orleans pralines at a discounted price. This is fine. We are all beautiful and unique snowflakes, especially when we decide to support the same things as a bunch of other people.

If someone wants a collection of terra cotta lamps shaped like various animals, and someone else is willing to put in the work, dedication and skill it takes to make them, money is generally exchanged and everyone ends up satisfied, emotionally and monetarily. It's pre-supply and demand. And if someone finds cute decorations for picnic tables offensive, fine. It's none of their business -- literally.