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Rise of the Fund-it Pundits


You're reading Reaction Time, a new weekly column that claims to examine recent events, games and trends in the industry, but is really just looking for an excuse to use the word "zeitgeist." It debuts on Fridays in Engadget's digital magazine, Distro.

In 1998, Tim Schafer asked the world to buy his darkest, funniest and greatest graphic adventure, Grim Fandango. Players planet-wide gave a big ol' shrug, despite the impassioned clamor of genre buffs and the constant yelling of critics, who could only find so many synonyms for "masterpiece."

In 2012, Tim Schafer asked the world to give him $400,000 for a new point-and-click project, which had yet to be designed, documented or even described. This time, he got over $3.3 million.

This stratospheric level of success on Kickstarter, a venue for crowd-sourced funding that's now being directed at unconventional games, is not the norm. Tim Schafer and his Double Fine studio are in the midst of a perfect storm of publicity. The designer's cherished legacy, and his perceived role as the charming genius who just can't catch a break in a harsh industry, are the components of a great underdog story. And maybe lifelong Grim Fandango guilt is the glue that holds it all together.

The early success of Kickstarter games must seem intoxicating to both designers and fans, who now find support and power for ideas that can't thrive in a mega publisher's catalogue of shooters and sports games. We've seen groups embarking on elaborate campaigns to resurrect their favorite television shows – after a TV exec started swinging the axe – but even those are weaker gestures compared to Kickstarter. The crowdsourcing platform facilitates an easy and variable financial contribution to creators. If your money gives impetus to relatively obscure revisitations like Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun Returns, you have some crazy power.

Kickstarter is a truly groundbreaking venture within the games industry because that power is shared – it's a collaboration between creators and fans. For "Double Fine Adventure," which will set the structure of many Kickstarters to come, some backers will be able to offer design input as the game takes shape. The relationship between player and creator is altered, as is the transaction between customer and product. It's not the same as a pre-order, and a Kickstarter funder might become more invested over time, beyond that first fiscal contribution.

Double Fine designers have a vision for these projects, and creative ownership, but have formally promised to at least consider an outside perspective (Jane Jenson's Pinkerton Road startup is following a similar course). The danger lies in how the two-way discussion dips into a different vocabulary on each side. Designers rely on artistry, technical knowledge and experience to convey their viewpoints, while players have to find expression in how they interact with someone else's work.

When it comes time to deliver actionable feedback, are players able to specifically describe why they don't like something? What's wrong or right with the "feel" of a jump, or the look of a character, or the logic of a puzzle? Are designers able to accept those comments, and determine who really knows best, and when? It would be a fascinating dialogue, if it weren't for the internet's tendency to turn everything into a shouting match.

As BioWare is now learning, things can get pretty loud out there. Many players felt the conclusion to Mass Effect 3 as something downright injurious, as a bitter end to a journey that spanned three games, hundreds of hours and, lest anyone forget, 180 dollars. It's hard to separate the silent majority from the socially embedded, caustic minority. Everyone can have a megaphone, and they're free to join the discussion whenever they please, whether they're hostile, understanding, or just there to drop in a TL;DR.

In the case of Mass Effect 3, some players feel like their investment in an authored universe didn't pay off. Now, imagine how that scenario can balloon when the investment has an early financial component, is transparently integrated into a product over a period of months, and – with Double Fine – claims to give you a hotline to the developer. What happens when the game you backed isn't the one you expected to get?

The question of "value" becomes nebulous with a wildly successful Kickstarter, which suggests that diplomacy may end up being more crucial than the game design. The project will have to be well made and judged on its own merits, but there needs to be a method to manage expectations, translate feedback between players and creators, and generally keep the realities of development front and center. The fallout from a massively backed but mismanaged Kickstarter game will be a nasty matter for public relations, and that's something even big publishers can struggle to get right.

Ludwig Kietzmann is the Editor-in-Chief of He's been writing about video games for over 10 years, and has been working on this self-referential blurb for about twice as long. He thinks it turned out pretty well. Follow him on Twitter @LudwigK.

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