Crowdfunding isn't just about the money

Even if it’s not your primary goal, raising money is at least part of what crowdfunding is about. But is it the most important goal? It isn’t to me, as I learned concretely on the first day of our campaign for Torment: Tides of Numenera.

It was afternoon on Wednesday, March 6th, 2013. Slightly before 6 AM PST, I launched the Kickstarter for Torment: Tides of Numenera from my quiet kitchen. Within a few hours, we reached our funding target of $900K and then broke the record for the fastest Kickstarter to $1M. Brian Fargo sent out a quick update to our early backers expressing our thanks at the overwhelming support. I was writing our second update, what would be my first of 14 throughout the month-long campaign (and almost fifty over the last 2.5 years).

Someone suggested calling out our record-breaking success, how much money we had raised.

I’m normally very deliberative, carefully thinking through want I want to say before saying it. But in this case, I responded quickly and instinctively. “No, this isn’t about the money. It’s about the game. The backers don’t care about the money.” My strong negative reaction to the casual suggestion stuck with me, and I later reflected on it.

Drawing excessive attention to Torment’s success would have been bragging. And beseeching our already generous backers to bring in more funding? That would be ungrateful and disrespectful. So, in that second update, I acknowledged the excitement of the day and I expressed my appreciation. But I kept the focus on the game and the backers. I focused on what we would do to express our gratitude. In the days prior, I’d contacted about fifteen game developers who had worked on Planescape: Torment, many of whom were former coworkers of mine from Obsidian Entertainment, and they’d graciously agreed to contribute to a Planescape: Torment Developer Retrospective. We’ll give it to all of our backers as well as those of Obsidian’s own Project Eternity. I chose this topic to lead my first Kickstarter update.

This, I felt, was what our backers wanted to hear about. Through Torment, we were promising a game experience reminiscent of a beloved classic and it was passion for this type of game, along with trust in Brian Fargo and our team, that led to their generosity. They didn’t care about the money, they cared about the legacy of Planescape: Torment. What better way to reward them than with commentary on the game by its creators?

Throughout Torment’s Kickstarter, I struggled with this aspect – my very job was, for that point in time – to raise funds. The more I raised, the healthier the budget I’d have to work with, the better game we could create, the happier we could ultimately make our backers. It’s how crowdfunding works, right?

In retrospect, I wonder if I hadn’t done Torment and its backers a disservice. I’ve backed dozens of Kickstarters, and many of them focus on the money raised, at least sometimes. I cringe a little bit when I read an update that emphasizes how much money has come in, how more money should be raised, and how important it is to fund or to reach a certain stretch goal. But I’ve grown to believe this perspective is somewhat particular to me, a bias stemming from my personal experiences. A bias that perhaps limited our potential.

As you may expect, I’ve thought quite a bit about Torment’s 90+K backers. About who these people are and why they pledged. I think there are a variety of motivations, which are by no means mutually exclusive and that these basic motivations apply to most video game Kickstarters. (In a future entry, I may write more about how to serve backers with each of these motivations.)

  1. The gamers who want to play the game you’re proposing to create. For us, these included fans of Planescape: Torment who want to see another game created that provides that type of profound narrative RPG experience. Or more generally, fans of CRPGs of that era, which was an underserved niche until recently.

  2. Supporters of your company or team. For us, these were primarily backers of Wasteland 2 who, pleased with that game’s progress, wanted inXile to thrive.

  3. People who are sick of the old publisher-developer model, and all that it entails. They see supporting projects like Torment and companies like inXile as an opportunity to vote for change with their money. These are the people who don’t want to see micro-transactions or DRM or approaches to game design and development that fail to put the gamers first.

  4. People whose gaming interests are underserved. This motivation can be related to #1, but isn’t necessarily. For Torment, besides CRPG fans, these were gamers prefer Mac and Linux as platforms or who speak one of the six non-English languages we announced out the gate that Torment would support (French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Russian).

  5. People who want to be part of something great, who want to make history. People who believe in your story and who want to help you realize your dream.

This last group, at least... they may have wanted to hear about the money. Maybe some of the others, too. They may have wanted me to place more emphasis on the funding, to do everything possible to increase that final tally, and to make Torment as historic an event as possible. But it just wasn’t me.

One of the first things Brian Fargo emphasized to me was how much crowdfunding is about goodwill toward the backers. It’s what I wanted to hear, and it’s part of what brought me to inXile and to Torment. I’m a Lawful Good paladin at heart. At least I strive to be. Even when it’s clearly about the money, I refuse to accept that. I want to live in a world where goodwill is the norm. So I pretend I do and attempt to act accordingly.

This is part of why I love crowdfunding. Prioritizing your supporters is not only the ethical thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Crowdfunding allows sincerity and good intentions to be rewarded, at least more so than usual.

But you tell me. If you participate in crowdfunding, why do you do so? What do you want the crowdfunders to emphasize in their communications to you? Does sincerity matter or is that wishful thinking on my part? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.