Kickstarters are interesting things. You can throw $20 at a project that looks cool, then completely forget it exists until you receive a definitive notice -- the one that either says "We're finished! Here's your reward!" or "Wow, we totally under-estimated how much work this is. Uh, sorry -- this isn't happening after all."
Unfortunately, as far as video game Kickstarters are concerned, the latter seems to happen distressingly often. The folks behind the campaign ask for too little money, are blind-sided by feature creep thanks to lofty stretch goals, forget to factor in how much money goes to taxes and Kickstarter fees, or all of the above.
Case in point: The unravelling of Epic Minds' Midora, a proposed top-down action-adventure game in the vein of Secret of Mana and The Legend of Zelda. Its Kickstarter campaign raised over $74,000 in 2014, but progress on the game quickly stalled when it ran out of money. In October 2015, Epic Minds sent out a call for investors and publishers. Nobody bit, and on January 11 2016, Epic Minds posted an update regarding refunds for backers.
Game director Mhyre promises he'll return to the game someday -- and in fact, "The less refunds [he has to make], the sooner you can expect me to go back to Midora and bring you the game we all believed in from the start."
When a high-profile Kickstarter like this crashes and burns, it becomes more important than ever to pore over crowdfunding's successes. In fact, some of the most highly-praised games released in recent years exist only because of Kickstarter or Indiegogo.
Don't Starve. Boot Hill Heroes. The Banner Saga. Kentucky Route Zero. They were all born of crowdfunding campaigns, to say nothing of the game that topped tons of "Best of 2015" lists: Undertale.
That's not even counting upcoming high-profile projects like Koji Igarashi's Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Playtonic's Yooka-Laylee, and Yu Suzuki's Shenmue III. Kickstarter isn't just about giving breakout developers a chance to demonstrate their skills. It's also about giving veterans a chance to keep doing what they love.
Of course, Kickstarter's success stories don't absolve failed campaigns of responsibility. Going back to Midora, Mhyre admits "I knew that the game would need more than $60,000 to be made. However, like many others, I didn't think for one second we could reach a goal higher than $60,000, especially after two failed campaigns and no prior advertising."
It's understandable why developers might lowball budget numbers. The recently-funded Indivisible asked for over a million dollars, a number that made many potential pledgers balk. But studios that purposefully under-estimate costs do significant damage to crowdfunding in the long-term, as backers become wary of failed projects and wonder why RPG X needs a million in funding while RPG Y only asked for sixty grand.
Still, mistakes and miscalculations happen. Though project managers are ultimately responsible for the fallout created by failed ventures, they also deserve some praise for being brave enough to stand up and say, "We messed up." Moreover, project post-mortems are extremely valuable for aspiring developers.
Crowdfunding isn't perfect, but it's given us enough excellent games that it deserves the benefit of the doubt. Still, even research and vigilance won't guarantee you'll inadvertently back a screw-job someday. To quote an Arwing-piloting space rabbit, "Trust your instincts."