Thursday, March 14, 2013

Thinking: Is there anything you can't Crowd-fund? And should you?

Well the somewhat epic success of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter seems to have started a debate on the internet on what sort of project should be up on Kickstarter in the first place. Is it right that projects on this scale should be there? Can't the people involved fund it themselves? Why don't the backers get a share in any profits? What the hell is a "Veronica Mars" anyway? Well, started a debate in the sense that there has been a lot of commentary on it from sites that have failed to notice the exact same debate going on over in Gaming circles.

Kickstarter: Making Nerds Bankrupt since 2009

It seems that a lot of people have forgotten that Kickstarter is in many ways a pretty pure strain of Capitalism.You, as an investor, are putting money into a project in the hope and expectation of a return, dependent on the success of the project. It may not be hiring a boat and crew of ne'er-do-wells to sail to the Mystical Orient is search of Spices, but the model is pretty much the same. You're not pre-ordering a product, you're funding the development of that product and will receive one as a reward if it all works out, and the risk is being transferred to you (the investor) should the boat sink, be attacked by Pirates, or the crew decide they like the Orient a lot and want to move there.

This is pretty much what Warner Brothers are doing with Veronica Mars; transferring some of the risk onto prospective customers. The idea of a VM movie (like the touted 4th season) is deemed unlikely to make a return but if they can raise the funds from fans, up front, that risk is hugely mitigated. I suspect they'll still want  a wider audience to see it to recoup their own costs from marketing and distribution, a studio being able to raise this sort of cash this way - gaining a lot of publicity in the process for "free" - could well be a bit of game changer.

You only have to look at the gaming section of Kickstarter to see how.

Richard Garriott, creator of the old Ultima series, has a Kickstarter, called Shroud of the Avatar. He wants a  cool million dollars. He joins GODUS, Elite: Dangerous, Star Citizen, Double Fine Adventure, Project Eternity and Torment as big money gaming projects build on nostalgia for gaming genres long thought dead. Most of these projects come from established names with their own development studios, that surely must have access to conventional funding. Garriott, Private Space Tourist, is certainly not short of a few million dollars, and yet there he is, asking punters to cough up, up front, in the hope that a game will be developed and delivered. If they can't make it work, you don't get your money back.

Of course, the big difference with Kickstarter is that if it succeeds, your reward is dictated at the start. That boat may come home loaded with Silks and Gold, but you backed it to the tune of a pair of nice socks and a statue of a Giraffe, so thats all you get and the crew can keep the rest. At least with Kickstarter you also get the satisfaction of knowing that you helped bring into existence something that otherwise may not have happened.

Now, everyone seems happy when Kickstarter (or similar efforts, like the Minecraft phenomena) elevates a garage project into something large and great and fufilling. Even more traditional "Venture Capital" projects like Ouya don't seem to attract much flak, presumably because of the perception it would never happen otherwise. But when it comes to a Studio-backed project like Veronica Mars, suddenly there is grumbling as if high-risk vanity projects for the sake of Art is what Warner Brothers should be doing anyway. But actually I think its a good way to get fans invested in a project, and a good way to gauge interest. Garriott has said that he already ploughs millions into running his game studio; Warner are underwriting some of the costs of the Veronica Mars movie. They've come to Kickstarter to spread that risk a little bit and I really don't see anything wrong with that, not least because it makes them answerable to their fans (in a moral if not strictly legal sense, but its a start!) rather than to other backers less concerned with the quality of the end product itself.

And ultimately, Kickstarter is about choice - people invest in what they choose to invest in; what they get in return is pretty well set out. Different projects structure themselves differently, give out rewards on a different basis, and set expectations in a wide variety of ways. There isn't a right project, or a right way to do it. All those different boats, heading for all sorts of different shores, and it's all rather exciting.

Edit: I've also seem some commentary about concerns that using crowdfunding to to greenlight movies (or games, or TV shows, or Comics, etc) is troubling as what's popular isn't always what is "good". Apart from the implicit snobbery of this position - which I can't criticize because I often share it - the two don't always go hand-in-hand, and what gets greenlit by the current "Big Media" is often pretty damn conservative in taste. Yes, nostalgia is powerful, but all methods of getting art made have problems, which is why a range of avenues (Traditional Media, Crowdfunding, Starving Drug-Addicts in Parisian Lofts) is the best way forward. Also, don't sweat the "maybes", guys. Be happy that this means things that would not otherwise exist, large and small, now can.