A couple years ago, the PC game Divinity: Original Sin was crowdfunded on Kickstarter. It’s not entirely clear to me why they needed crowdfunding, given that its developer, Larian Games, had been around and producing games in the Divinity series since 1996. Maybe they needed the extra million people crowdfunded to make the game more ambitious, I don’t know. But either way: the game went on to be a smash success. In early September of 2014, the developers announced that they had sold 500,000 copies since its release in June, hitting the break even point in profits. That was a year ago. While I can’t find a reliable number now, the game remained (and remains) high on Steam play lists and earned fantastic reviews, taking home several Game of the Year awards. It surely made a very nice profit for Larian.
So what are they doing now? Why, crowdfunding the next one, of course.
Let’s be 100% clear about what this is. This isn’t fans helping the little guy out. This isn’t charity. It’s not the townsfolk banding together to save the local community theater. It’s a for-profit company that just had a very successful product placing the financial risk of their next product on the people they’re going to be selling the product to. Once upon a time, in ye olden days, corporations that wanted a chance to make profits also had to accept the risk of a failed product. Now, hey, just crowdfund; place the risk burden on the very consumers that you want to wring profits out of in the first place! What could go wrong? Typically, criticism of crowdfunding turns on the possibility of failed product launches, such as in this great Gideon Lewis-Kraus piece on an overly ambitious coffeemaker, or the ubiquitous risk of out-and-out fraud. But I find these successes more disturbing: why not just keep going back to the well, no matter how profitable your company is, and reap the profits free of risk?
Of course, in earlier years people would ask why consumers would ever consent to take on risk without a share of the profits, why they would spend like investors but receive no stock or power in the company. But that’s an attitude, I’m afraid, of an earlier era. Now we live in the era of the Ubiquitous Fanboy, the era where geek culture has firmly established the notion that we owe gratitude to those to whom we’ve already given money.