My Winning Streak Is Finally Broken: The Perennial Risk of Crowdfunding

All things considered I’ve had an astonishing track record with the crowdfunding projects I’ve backed. Shadowrun: Hong Kong, the first project I ever backed, distributed release codes on the exact date that Harebrained Schemes promised in their pitch. This is particularly noteworthy because video game crowdfunding projects not being subject to at least some delays is almost unheard of, let alone the massive drama associated with high profile video game crowdfunding. I was also pleased with Yooka-Laylee, buggy launch notwithstanding that Playtonic has worked diligently to fix. BattleTechDivinity Original Sin II, Pillars of Eternity 2 and Banner Saga 3 are all coming along nicely, and I also enjoyed Exploding Kittens and Bears versus Babies along with basically the entire Internet.

This is especially in comparison to a friend of mine who backed both Project Phoenix and Unsung Story, two Japanese RPG Kickstarter projects that are now essentially dead in the water. I can’t say I blame him for having sworn off crowdfunding as a result.

I’ve also backed some less high profile projects, largely based on what looks interesting and the types of media I’d like to promote and encourage, albeit for less money than I’ve offered for established studios like Larian or Obsidian. Based on some of my higher pedigree backings, you may have correctly deduced that I’m a cRPG fan. This goes all the way back to my discovering Baldur’s Gate II; even though I sucked at it I was enraptured.

So I’ve been delighted at this cRPG resurgence and was happy to toss some quid in the direction of Project Resurgencebilled as a “new old school cRPG” in the vein of Pillars of Eternity. For $15 I was more than happy to back a risky project by a studio with less pedigree than a team of seasoned wizards like Harebrained. I mean that metaphorically, although they sound like they would favor wizards in cRPG settings.

Unfortunately, on August 3 of 2017 they sent out the update every backer of every project dreads: Project Resurgence has been put on hold indefinitely.

It has been extremely difficult for me to write this update. I’ve tried, and I just couldn’t get the words to come out. Emotionally, I’ve fallen into one of the darkest places in my life, and I’m just now digging myself out and starting to feel ok again. As the title states, we’ve run out of money and been forced to dissolve Nectar and put Resurgence on indefinite hiatus.

I apologize if this comes as a shock to you. It certainly was a shock to us. But I will try to explain the situation as best I can, and what that means for all of you and our beloved game.

It was definitely a surprise to me; I tend to only follow the Kickstarter projects I back by the E-mail updates I receive since I’m not particularly active on backer forums and there weren’t any indications of problems brewing behind the scenes (more on that later, though). Many of my fellow backers are extremely unhappy. There have been allegations of theft and fraud, and I’ve seen the words “incompetent” and “greedy” among some of the particularly upset backers.

Here’s the thing, though: This isn’t theft or fraud, it’s a reality of crowdfunding.

Am I disappointed? Of course. I think fewer video games in the world – especially from one of my chestnut genres – is never a good thing. Am I upset? Not in the least.

Some of the language behind the comments reflects a persisting attitude when approaching video game crowdfunding, particularly the idea that the developers have broken promises by failing to deliver or release the game. Specifically the attitude that crowdfunding is a glorified pre-order center.

Even years after incidents involving projects like Broken Age and Mighty No. 9 (to say nothing of actual instances of recognizable fraud) people are still, to this day, treating crowdfunding pledges like an online store. A place where you’re guaranteed finished projects, albeit with a delay or two. You see this a lot in tech crowdfunding; no matter how much money and publicity a project is given it can still turn into a complete disaster.

Here’s why I refer to projects like Project ResurgenceGlitched or Visage (another one I’m backing) as dark horse projects. You need to be ready to donate your money to these projects under the assumption that you could see absolutely jack shit in return. This applies even to talented studios like Larian or Obsidian. As I stated earlier, nothing guarantees success even though I have the utmost confidence in the aforementioned studios. Especially in an environment as tumultuous and expensive as game development, although this really applies to tech as a whole. Costs are impossible to predict and spiral out of control all the time.  It’s not like raising a few thousand dollars to print a magazine.

Though you even need to approach a project like that with the understand that it could fail. The paragraph that I quoted from that update indicates that one of the project leaders is going through a very low period in his life. This is just one of a million variables and obstacles to consider. Burnout, mental health problems, physical health problems, legal troubles and unexpected emergencies are all things that have tanked crowdfunding projects humbler than Resurgence.

As for the surprise a lot of people (including, admittedly, me) felt at the unexpected shuttering of Resurgence without warning, all I can say is welcome to the business world. Local businesses I’ve frequented, including a few of my own clients, have sent out the dreaded, sad announcements that they’ll be closing their doors to the shock of their customers who express dismay at not having realized there were problems. We never know what goes on behind the curtain even though crowdfunding projects do require a greater degree of transparency.

There’s also the issue of the superbackers who sank hundreds or even thousands of dollars into Resurgence. Looking at the campaign I can see why people are upset considering there are backers for $1,000, $3,000, $6,000 and even $10,000. To which I say this: Why do you think I only backed Resurgence for $15? Making peace with the idea that the project you’re donating to could never come to fruition applies regardless of how much money you commit to it. I was financially capable of donating $1,000 but I wasn’t comfortable with that risk. It’s as simple as that. Investors deal with this kind of risk all the time, and they’re potentially sinking millions of dollars into a startup.

If you’re willing to part with $10,000 with the possibility that you could never see it again? Awesome, and thank you for patronizing the arts in such a prolific way! Though if you aren’t, I would seriously consider a reevaluation of where you commit your money.

However you feel about the project leads of Resurgence handling their announcement – and I personally thought it was a well written and transparent post-mortem – they’re entirely right in citing that pledges are legally considered donations or gifts so backing a project is essentially taking a gamble on something you’d like to see happen. There are never any guarantees. Via Kickstarter’s FAQ:

How do backers know if a project will follow through?

Launching a Kickstarter is a very public act, and creators put their reputations at risk when they do.

Backers should look for creators who share a clear plan for how their project will be completed, and who have a history of bringing their creative ventures and other projects to fruition. Creators are encouraged to share links and as much background information as possible so backers can make informed decisions about the projects they support.

If a creator has no demonstrable experience in doing something like their project or doesn’t share key information, backers should take that into consideration. Does the creator include links to any websites that show work related to the project, or past projects? Does the creator appear in the video? Have they connected via Facebook?

This was basically exactly how I approached my first projects. I was never particularly sold on crowdfunding during the initial boom that produced Broken Age, and as a result I dodged a few bullets, even avoiding backing Mighty No. 9. After a successful Shadowrun Returns and another successful followup with Dragonfall I was happy to make them my first project. Investors often receive an equity stake when they invest money – which is different than donating it – and even they often do extensive due diligence. If anything you should be even more careful as a Kickstarter or Fig donor in how you spend your money.

Once you realize that this is the reality of crowdfunding you’ll find yourself a lot better off and you’ll find yourself with the ability to shrug and let it go when things like this happen. Project Resurgence is far from the first project to end like this and it certainly won’t be the last. I fully believe the creators’ explanations and accept their apology, and while I would love to see the project return in the future, for now I would encourage my fellow backers to let it go.

Besides, at least the marketing for Resurgence didn’t make anyone cry like an anime fan on prom night (just watch the video if you don’t get the reference and try to not cringe).