Amplitude: A funding freak

Harmonix's Kickstarter project to fund a successor to its 2002 cult favorite PS2 music game Amplitude will be retold time and time again as a glimmering example of success on the platform. After all, the project had all the good stuff we like to talk about: A likeable group of developers, a classic fan-favorite series and a sudden resurgence after its campaign seemed desperately bleak. What's lost in the story is that the project shouldn't have succeeded; it's the anomaly that broke the math of Kickstarter.

After the project launched May 5 and earned $170,000 in two days, Harmonix struggled to pass the $250,000 mark ten days later, leaving it with less than half its campaign time to earn over two thirds of its lofty $775,000 goal. And it did just that, surpassing the goal last Thursday and netting a total of $844,127 when all was said and done.

It was easy to get caught up in the drama as big names like Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson and Insomniac CEO Ted Price issued calls to action to back Amplitude and the project gathered speed, supporters frantic in their enthusiasm for its success. While the community-backed Amplitude project might inspire others to seek big paydays on the funding platform, it's more or less a red herring. Dearest project creators: You are not Harmonix, and last week's cries to join the funding party weren't the only anomaly on Kickstarter. Amplitude is a freak.

Of the 262 successful video game Kickstarters in the nine month period from June 2013 through February 2014, only eight brought in more money than Harmonix did with Amplitude. Consider Amplitude part of the wealthy minority in crowdfunding. Projects in the nine-month period earned closer to $22,000, far less than the massive amount Harmonix managed. What's more, that number is on the decline: The winter quarter in crowdfunding saw a median average of $18,087 raised among its projects.

A large chunk of Harmonix's success last week came from the willingness of its funders to increase their pledge amounts beyond what they normally might be. Amplitude saw an average of $59.82 pledged per person, more than twenty bucks higher than the typical contribution recorded in the aforementioned nine-month period ($36.03). That trend hasn't let up, either. In other words, if the Amplitude project had gone the way of most Kickstarter efforts, Harmonix would have earned roughly $335,813 less than it actually did. Failure.

The success rate of gaming Kickstarter projects is the other major struggle in the space. Ink Stories managed over $300,000 in support for its novel, politically-charged game 1979 Revolution, yet didn't get the Harmonix-level push to see any of that funding money in December. More recently, Renegade Kid wasn't able to pass the $50,000 mark on its quest to raise $580,000 for Cult County, and the developer's co-founder Jools Watsham determined that the "only way to reduce [its] budget is to only make episode [one]." Spaceteam designer Henry Smith's "experiment" to raise $80,000 CAD to develop two free games failed earlier this month, though Smith asserted that it was a success in proving that players are "ready for this kind of funding model." As it turns out, players seemed more eager to bring a rhythm-action game back from a 12-year absence.

The crowdfunding community decided that each of these games weren't going to be made, just like it decided that pouring $1.2 million into Double Fine's Massive Chalice last June was reasonable. And yet of those 262 games funded between June and February, 121 of them received less than $20,000, 219 earned less than $100,000. It's impossible to say with any certainty that those developers will have a tough time creating their respective games with those budgets; most will likely be fine.

Still, those considering crowdfunding their dream projects may also face the reality that those visions need to be increasingly limited in scope. There's no telling what caused the Amplitude project to skyrocket, whether the Dance Central developer's name or the return of a familiar brand brought promise to backers is unclear. If Harmonix's incredible rally last week says anything, it's that even a game like the upcoming Amplitude successor requires more than what crowdfunding can offer.