Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Kevin Is Right: Why Your Kickstarter is Bullshit

Over the course of the last year or so, we here at Loaded Dice have really changed our tune on crowdfunding.  Indeed, we discussed the issue in a lot of depth in a recent podcast on the subject.  Suffice to say that we have gone from very excited about the possibilities of democratized crowdfunding, and the empowerment of participating and patronizing the projects that you wish to see come into the world, to a sort of wary feeling of disillusionment, fueled by the myriad delays, disappointments and occasional outright frauds which have come to pass over the course of the last 18 months or so.

The problem with kickstarters is that they can prey on a group of unsophisticated "investors" who have wallets that are both loose and fat.  In place of the traditional model of video game investment, which relies upon the tried and true concepts of business plans, legal vetting, budgeting, and a bunch of other stuff you learn in business school, developers are allowed to tug on the strings of nostalgia and empowerment fantasies to sell you rainbows, ponies, unicorns and wishes. None of the vetting that goes with taking a potentially good idea to market is required, and often, it is not even begun until the money is already in hand.

I wanted to deconstruct what I felt was a typically problematic kickstarter video, the primary "elevator pitch" of most, if not all,  kickstarters, for the purposes of exposing the manipulations.  I have chosen the recently fully funded (and fully stretch goaled) Mighty No. 9 kickstarter.  I want to emphasize that although it is of necessity that I have singled out one particular kickstarter video, it is not because this one is particularly more egregious or terrible than the rest.  My goal is merely to use it as an example to demonstrate a wider pattern of the manipulations and illusory promises that are typical of this sort of pitch.  Mighty No. 9 just happened to hit many of the high notes.  Oh, and Dubs is kind of enthusiastic about it, so it's always fun to shit in his cornflakes.

Analysis After the Break....


This shot sets the tone for the entire kickstarter, and it is taken directly from the beginning of Megaman.  The idea is to evoke a very specific, very nostalgic beginning.  The shot is instantly recognizable by Megaman fans, and is designed to gear them up for Megaman.

For purposes of comparison:



We are hit with an immediate visual which is meant to conjure Megaman atop the building, in Keiji Inafune's blue outfit.  There's an immediate and intentional associative transfer that takes place.  Teed up from the opening shot, at the moment where traditionally, we hit start and step into the clothes of Megaman ourselves, Inafune-san has done the same.  We instantly have a kinship, a transference of sympathy that helps us identify with him, who is simultaneously "us" and our "hero."  Indeed, he is us, in our most heroic moment.  And thus, we are more inclined to hear what he has to say.

We hear Inafune introduce himself and speak about his experience at Capcom.  My favorite part of this is how Megaman is mentioned last, almost as an afterthought, despite all the visual imagery thus far being a neon sign pointing to the property.  It's a subtle cue to the Megaman fan saying, "Yeah, we're acting casual about this, but you, you smart devil, you know what this is all about.  Wink Wink."

What's obnoxious about this is that it is the first step in creating one of the big lies of crowdfunding:  The Insider.  Because this message is being communicated to you subtextually, you feel as if you are in on a secret with Inafune, that you are co-conspirators.  He's playing with the same impulses that drive "Upvote if you remember this" posts on Reddit, or "37 Ways You know you grew up in the 90s" on buzzfeed.  The experience is one of intimacy; you feel you are being spoken to personally and your experiences are being validated.  But, in actuality, what you're seeing is something that is being targeted to a wide audience of suckers willing to part with their cash, clicks, or imaginary internet karma, and you're right in the middle of it.


"Now I've got a concept for an exciting new project, but I need your help to get it started. Let's make this game happen-Together."

In the year 20XX All sources of legitimate funding and investment have become too stupid to know a good thing when they see one.  They abhor fun and good, and wish to withhold their money from legitimate projects for nefarious reasons largely to do with their number one goal of making you, dear viewer, unhappy.  It is only you, our heroic champion, unique among mankind, (having been told you are special all your life), armed with 5 dollars just lying around (that you were probably going to blow on Subway anyway), and the absolutely astoundingly uncommon (particularly in the age group of 25-40) true appreciation of Megaman, and the heroic courage to invest your money to make this great work of art come to light!

It's here that we reach the second big lie of crowdfunding:  You are Special.  It's total and utter bullshit.  You are a wallet.  You're a dumb 18 year old at a strip club who likes boobies more than common sense.  Someone is whispering in your ear how good looking you are.  These videos often create a false impression, (backed up by years of the millennial generation being told how special each and every one of its members are), that the viewer is the only person who can make this project happen.  This imbues them with a sense of importance that is pleasing to the ego, and capable of insinuating a sense of urgency.

The fact of the matter is, there are plenty of sources for funding out there.  Publishers, as well as private investment, have existed as the primary source for video game funding for a long time.  Indeed, it was a publisher who saw the first through however many umpteen iterations of Megaman into the world with their cash moneys.  The difference between you and a publishers is not that you are special, and have a unique appreciation of fun.  It is that you are a rube, and publishers are not that, and instead ask real questions before they invest in a game, and demand real answers.  You, on the other hand, are satisfied with being told you're special, and getting winky references to Megaman.

Another red flag that should go up from this critical segment is based on the word "Concept."  Concept is the crowdfunder's way of saying "We have jack shit."  Concepts are great, and, indeed, inspire rubes to part with their money, but as we discovered during our review of successful and non-successful crowdfunding projects for the podcast, the further along a project is before it resorts to crowdfunding, the less that can go wrong.   When you only have a concept, this means you still have yet to take the following steps which are critical to the successful completion of a video game project: 1) Prototypes 2) Proof of Concepts 3) Full character and level design 4) Debugging, 5) Playtesting, 6) Balancing, 7)Coding and labor 8) Distribution  9) Marketing and advertising  10) Packaging 11) Legal.  Any number of those critical processes could go awry unexpectedly.  This is, of course, true no matter what model of funding a developer chooses.  The difference is, a publisher, for example, is able to assert some control over the process.  You, Mr. Rube, have already given away your money, and when the developer disappears, the case of The Doom That Came to Atlantic City being a notable example, you can't do much about it except cry into your bowl of cheetos.

Finally, you have another, more obvious invitation to conspiracy, to be "The Insider."  Let's do this "together."


Really?  Blue/Megaman America (Fuck Yeah) hat?  REALLY?


"I've been lucky to be involved with several titles throughout my career that left a lasting impression on gamers- with characters that are remembered fondly, even today."

This is just another layering of the fudge from earlier.  Yes, we know you're talking about Megaman, dude.  You might as well just say it rather than beating around the bush.  Except, no, this is more effective, because once again, the fantasy of conspiracy is continued.

"Three years ago I broke away to create my own independent studio, Comcept, where I could devote myself to making the kinds of games I wanted to make."
And now we have uncovered the third popular manipulation of crowdfunding, a special version of the straw man fallacy, which I will term "The Phantom Shackles."  Essentially, within the phrasing of the sentence, there is an implication that there existed a phantom force, which must be fought against, keeping this otherwise brilliant artist and visionary from creating something in his true vision.  You see this all the time.  "I'm finally able to bring you my original vision of Star Wars."  "I'm finally going to make this game as it was intended."  The fact of the matter is, for the most part, cream rises to the top, and this implication misses the point of making commercial video games.  The question is not, in actuality, "What type of game do you want to make?"  It is "Is the type of game you want to make good?" I'm not saying the answer to this question is no in this case-I don't know.  What I'm saying is that the right question isn't being asked here.  Further, actual investors are motivated to ask this second question, and it is a huge determining factor on whether they invest.  Apparently, it's not important to a kickstarter backer.

Additionally, what's glossed over here is that this man, bravely and possibly stupidly (the jury is out) went and made a bold career choice, which he is now asking YOU to finance.  Another way of saying the above quoted monologue is "A stable job as  Head of Production for Capcom was not enough for me, so I would like you to finance me and my friends making another Megaman Game without the pesky input of people whose job it is to insure the product is commercially viable and a worthwhile investment."   Entrepreneurship is a fantastic engine of creativity and progression, and fuels the world economy.  To me, when you are starting a for-profit enterprise to develop a commercially available game as an entrepreneurial venture, it is contrary to the spirit of the thing, and potentially unethical, to ask for charity as a result.  No?

Finally, more than anything else, the element that sticks out during this 15 second scene is the visual narrative taking place.  We see Inafune walk into a game store, scope out some games, and chat it up with the clerk, no doubt swapping opinions about the latest release.  Without calling into question the authenticity and relevance of this experience to Mr. Inafune's daily life, we can certainly call into question the relevance of the narrative to investing in a video game.

The narrative is there only for the purposes of emotionally manipulating the viewer.  You see, while the video is trying to get you to subconsciously identify with Inafune, and thus sympathize with him.  To say to yourself "We share similar experiences, he is just like me!  I should help him!" A sophisticated, normal investor would be blinking his eyes at the boldness of the move to independently start a development studio without securing funding, and asking if he could please see a business model, or hear a proposal, with some projections and a summation of your current assets and capital.  But when you're speaking to a rube, that's not what it's about.  It's about emotions, not logic, facts or figures.  Straight ponies and rainbows, baby.

01:10 to 01:28
"What hasn't changed is listening to the fans: I've always felt it was important to hear their opinions.  And while it's clear they want new, fresh experiences from my games, I know they also hunger for elements of the classic action games of my past."

The layering has begun.  If I knew you were coming, I'd have baked a cake.  We start seeing elements from above weave together to start really cooking.  You are given the lie that you are special.  Your opinion matters.  Your ideas are important.

This is layered in nicely with the nostalgia pitch.  A subtle connection has been made here.  "You, Mr. Special Gamer....I know what you want...(and it just so happens its exactly what I'm trying to sell you)...Megaman..but shhh don't tell anyone it's Megaman...we're still speaking in code... Megaman buddies, right?  (Remember my shirt?)"  You've been given an opinion.  An opinion which, hopefully, you've been made susceptible to throughout this video.   You've been identified with the "empowered gamer" (who wouldn't want to be?) and a member of the super secret Megaman club (shhhhh, it's a secret) and you've been told that they *already know* what you want.  How did they do that?  Wow!  Just what I always wanted!

The visual accompaniment here is laughable in its disingenuousness and lack of subtlety. In the last shot, after chatting it up with the "empowered gamers" and sharing a few laughs (you see, they are you, and you are in the club!) Inafune holds up an old Super Nintendo while evoking the "action games of the past" (insert giant neon sign pointing to Megaman, again). Improbably, Inafune is ostensibly buying this Super Nintendo.  He's holding it in his hands, it will soon be his (and yours!).

Now, all of us old school gamers fantasize about maybe buying a Super Nintendo.  It was released at a time where the huge majority of the target demographic of this video did not have an income of their own.  They were dependent upon their elders, probably their parents, to bestow this great 16 bit powerhouse on them.  Of course it would be an empowerment fantasy to finally, actually, purchase this grail-like piece of hardware for yourself.  Hell, the fantasy even goes so far as you play some of those sweet old games on there.  Just like you were a kid.  Let's fire up Pilot Wings!  It's a fantasy filled with the very stuff that this video trades in: empowerment and nostalgia.  Truth be told, sure, you could go out and buy an SNES right now, but do you?  No, because you're too busy playing XBox or some other such shit.  And, further, you know who probably has about 18 SNES's lying around his house, because he developed for the console and is an insider in the gaming industry?  The dude in the video, purporting to be an every day Joe, living out every 30 year old nerd's fantasy.  Its not really about Inafune at all, that shot.  It is about you, it is about your emotions, your fantasies, and manipulating those things to get money out of your wallet.

01:28 to 01:45
With this in mind, I launched a project a few years ago that was one of my longest-held dreams, but  with its cancellation, I felt like I let down not only myself, but really the fans, too.

What great story isn't complete without the second act?  Part of what is tugging at your heartstrings here is your innate desire, trained by years of hollywood scripts and the hero's journey, to see the hero triumph against the forces of evil that, subconsciously, your brain expects him to hit here.  Congratulations, you've just hit the Empire Strikes Back of this kickstarter video.  It's all Ewoks and and Space battles from here, baby.

Visually, the viewer is confronted with the most disappointing and heart breaking text a gamer can see.  "Game Over."  But even with this tear rolling down our cheek there is hope:  All initiates rose in rank in the Secret Society of the Ilmeganati, as Megaman Legacy is referenced without being explicitly named.

I thought long and hard about how to make sure that wouldn't happen again....and that led me to Kickstarter.
This is the worm turning.  Once the pump has been primed, the nostalgia brought to a froth, the feelings of power enforced, the desire to wield this power for good unleashed, and the enemy identified, the solution is provided in revelatory fashion.

I think Kickstarter is an amazing system allowing game creators and fans to connect, communicate and create things- together

We have more layering here.  The myth of the insider, the appeal to empowerment, and the marriage to the solution.  Which is giving him money.  You're not creating things together.  You're giving him money, and he's (hopefully) creating something, and he's giving you credit to make you feel better.  When the football team wins a game, and they bring the big booster into the locker room and say "We couldn't have done it without Daddy Warbucks here!" This is not strictly true.  Daddy Warbucks didn't play a down.  He had 0 tackles on defense.  But, boy, when you give Daddy Warbucks that indispensible feeling, he's more inclined to make another big donation, so "Thre Cheers for Daddy Warbucks, our MVP!"

Also featured here is a visual shift.  We've moved away from the "Gamer" visuals to the "Creator" visuals.  That transition is subtle, the last section featured a shot in the arcade, but the shift was that Inafune went from being a gamer himself to observing the gamers.  Now we see why:  He is a creator.  He is an authority.  He is in his studio.  He is delivering the solution that you so desperately need.  He is empowered to be your champion.

While the beloved creations of my past are no longer at my disposal, the spirit they were born from still is.  By tapping into that spirit we can create a new game -and new characters- that carry the legacy of the past.

This is where the techniques set in the first two acts start to really ramp up to overdrive.  Once again, we have a nudge nudge wink wink.  We have the sketches of a "new" character as the prominent visual focus of not only the footage, but also the narration.  Shockingly, this new character looks just like an outline of Megaman.   The subtext is obvious, but the unintentional symbolism makes me laugh.  This is an apt metaphor for what they have.  An empty shell that looks a bit like Megaman, but for reasons of copywrite law, cannot be Megaman.  And so, you just have an empty shell.

Notice the subtle shift of language here.  When we were in the first act, they were "My creations from the past."  Now "we" are creating a new game and new characters.  It's as manipulative as it is untrue.  Finally, we finish off with the vaguely megaman-esque music rising to a heroic creshendo, indicating we, the members of the ilmeganatti game creation society, are off to save the day.


And now the motifs are coming heavy and hard.  A vertical construction site complementing the metaphor of game development as a platformer containing stages to be beaten.  A blonde girl in red walking by with a pink dog companion evoking Megaman characters Roll and Rush.. And in an absolutely brutal visual hammerblow, the helmet of the construction worker is that of the iconic "Met" enemy from days of Megaman yore.  How is ANY of this relevant to a financially motivated for profit video game venture that is, explicitly legally forbidden from being Megaman by intellectual property law?  It is not.  It's relevant only to parting rubes with their cash.

As we meet the team we are clued in that they are the collaborators of the past, and promised Megaman greatness, once again through implication.


It is important that you look at this  exact moment, because it highlights the real problem with projects like this.  If you showed this document to a real investor they would be horrified.  If you show it to a kickstarter backer, they are excited.  This document is a design document that would not be confused for a moment as anything other than a design document for a megaman game.  They didn't even try and hide it.  You have Metalman's smashy ceiling thingies.  You have the annoying shield guys from Crashman's (among others) stage.    You have the fucking bees.  Oh those fucking bees!  If you look in the top center, you even see a stick figure study of Megaman's iconic jump pose.  Any person with any concept of what intellectual property is would be taken aback by this display.  An investor, if he even stayed in the room after this was trotted out, would want to know how much Capcom has been paid for licensing, who their legal representation is, and what sort of fees are associated with defending the inevitable suit that is coming.

This document demonstrates the gulf between reality and wishful thinking.  It is entirely possible that there is a brilliant legal defense involving creator's rights and fair use and not-likely-to-cause-confusion arguments which will allow the game to overcome these seemingly insurmountable hurdles.  But we are not presented with them, certainly.    We are given ponies and unicorns and fairies, when a frank discussion is in order.  It is also entirely possible, indeed seemingly more likely,  that this apparently blatant purloining of intellectual property will not survive a challenge in court.  What then, dear collaborator?  Where is the game "we" were creating?  What of it now?  Where did that money go? What say did you get? I've got news for you, you're not going to like the answer.  Check with the fine folks at the aforementioned "The Doom That Came to Atlantic City."

We're still in the planning phases, hashing out the details of our concept.  We're able to focus on what we always wanted to do without the hardware limitations of the past and with ideas that only come with experience- ideas we didn't have when we were younger.
This is the next moment I want to look at, as what problems exist between 04:03 and 03:26 have already been mentioned earlier in the blogpost, but I can't hammer this one home hard enough.  When you hear planning phases, hashing out, and concept, you should run.  This language does not yet alarm kickstarter backers nearly as much as it should.  At a bare minimum, it means that if all goes right, the instant gratification that this entire video is gearing you up for is years and years away from final product.  And, in the history of the world, particularly video game development, very little tends to go right.  When you add in the complications of crowdfunding providing gushers of cash to inexperienced and unvetted creators, the odds go much lower than normal.  That's a story we're starting to see over and over again.

Additionally, we see yet another champion false boogeyman of kickstarter.  The promise that games, particularly classic games, will somehow be improved because of modern technology.  The reality is, more often than not, the makeover really goes skin deep.  Is it prettier?  Sure.  But is technology what is going to make or break a genre that has existed since 1986 and is probably well past its apex?  I've yet to see the title that does.  Design is what makes a game, and this crutch of "we now have the technology to do what we always wanted" is another dog and pony show which George Lucas used to great effect to make Han Shoot First.  If that's not a real boogeyman, I don't know what is.


Wow.  If you're not concerned about the legal implications of this game yet, I don't know what will concern you.  Oh, you're not concerned, because you think Roll is awesome and yay megaman game and yayyyyyy?  Oh, Ok, well, there you go.  Good thinking, chief.  If Capcom declines to sue, maybe whoever has the Voltron rights will.  But hooray nostalgia!


Is that Cutsman?  Dr. Light!  Get equipped with "Massive Legal Defense Fund."  And yet, this is making you more excited, isn't it?


"Now we can finally draw on the full extent of our fans' support and make the game we want to make- the game we ourselves want to play"
In other words, now you have a direct way to part fans with their money, without any of the messiness of having to actually make a product first.

Also, there's a stunning amount of this "make the game we want to play" thing going around kickstarter.  To me, rather than an affirmation of the gamer mentality, as it is meant to be, it's a damning admission that you're either lying right now, or you've been making shitty games this whole time.  Perhaps its a kafka-esque statement about the futility of ever being satiated as a gamer?  The next game is always the game you want to play.  How existential.

The video goes on like this for another minute, throwing up promises of a super awesome team up, concept art without any game or game play, and the language of empowerment, and we've already pretty exhaustingly broken this down.


I want to be clear.  This video is not meant to say if you kickstart something you are dumb.  It is not meant to say that people who begin kickstarter projects are evil.  It is meant to open your eyes and allow you to make more informed decisions.  Truth be told, the idea that kickstarter allows for democratized patronage for art is a wonderful thing, more or less unheard of up until the rise of crowdfunding as a resource for those people.  It allows projects that, indeed, will be passed over by the traditional vetting structures because they are not commercially viable to be artistically viable and supported.  I just get burned up when someone is doing a for-profit venture, and essentially soliciting charitable donations via emotional manipulation, while leaving the facts to the side.  To me, that's about gaming the system, not revolutionizing it, democratizing it, or making it any better.  It's taking advantage of an unsophisticated consumer in a new marketplace.

Kickstarter should keep on keeping on.  And this article can't, won't and shouldn't stop that.  My only hope is that the next kickstarter video that comes around will be more honest and straightforward.  It will treat the consumer as a sophisticated investor, worthy of the presentation of facts, and the respect of the creator, rather than merely some patronizing statements.  If it doesn't, it should be cast aside for a creator that will do that.  Your dollars are meaningful, and should go to a project worthy of them.  Let's go find it.

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