The UX of a crowd-funding campaign

In his recent article, Joe Thomas highlights the enormous success behind Star Citizen’s crowdfunding campaign which has reached, at the time of writing, over 39,9 million US dollars. He describes how this campaign will shake the foundations of video game development and will allow titles that would have never seen the light of day to emerge through the support of loyal fan bases.

I agree entirely on the points in his article, up until the very last statement: “The real beauty of crowd-funding, and especially Kickstarter, is the mutually beneficial nature of it. Developers get finance to produce their ideas, and loyal customers get exclusive rewards like Beta access, in-game items, signed artworks and even chances to meet the developers.”

My biggest disagreement is the mutual benefit that is presented in the article which makes it sound like a win-win. I would like to present some very big issues with crowd funding, especially at this large of a scale, and argue that this will not necessarily be so ground-shaking that it will change the way all games will be developed. I honestly doubt this large of a production will happen any time soon, and I hope to be proven wrong.

I will not talk about the game contents at all, but I will talk about the UX of the Star Citizen fans nevertheless. How is that possible? The UX of Star Citizen has already started, even if there is another 1-2 years before anyone gets their hands on the game. A lot of people that have backed the game want to play it. The way Star Citizen has been presented and is gradually released, players have been able to get their hands on Hangar Module, a system where you can load up your hangar, and move around your ships, sit inside them, etc. While they wait for the game to be released, they go on forums. They take part in polls. They dream about how amazing Star Citizen is going to be.

And the next day, an announcement is made. Changes are announced. Like every single Kickstarter campaign, the end-product is not the one promised at the very beginning. It doesn’t matter if it is actually true or not, but what matters is the perception that the original promise is not true anymore. Don’t believe me? Take a look at these numbers in this article. And that causes frustration in the user. They feel let down. They feel betrayed.

Original backers in Star Citizen were promised access to exclusive ships early on, by being sold in-game vessels in limited quantity and limited availability. Those ships were never to be sold again. People spent hundreds of dollars on something that was exclusive. A year later, the pressure from the so-called New Backers and the sheer amount of fans the game attracted created a problem when Cloud Imperium Games (CiG) announced it would make some ships available for sale for a limited amount of time. Some of the ships were the ones that had been promised to be exclusive. There was a lot of outrage by Original Backers, and a lot of crying over the backstab by CiG. Most backers of a game fund it for a specific reason, and they do not understand that the game will most probably change over the course of the development. But what they do understand is that the exclusive “golden ticket” they paid extra for loses its value when that ticket becomes available again to everyone who joins the party a year later.

It does not matter that more backers and more money increases the chances of the game being better to the average user. From a UX perspective, this crowdfunding campaign causes 2 years of waiting. Waiting which has to be filled with good news and proofs of good progress. And because nothing goes smoothly in the video game development industry, and the backers can see that stuff is delayed and promises broken, that is 2 years of frustration. 2 years were people grow more and more unhappy with the fact that you are changing what you promised at the beginning. That you are offering those New Backer peasants stuff they shouldn’t be allowed to get! THAT YOU DARE NOT DELIVER ON THE DATE YOU PROMISED YOU WOULD. The game is 2 years away, and some of the Star Citizen backers are among the most pissed off customers ever. If you don’t believe me, I have thousands of forum pages to back me up. The same issues appearing over and over – “Omg why are they changing this” – and players are getting frustrated at the game and at one another before the game is even played. 

Another issue with open development is the creation of a User Experience that makes the customer feel like they have a voice and that it should matter. When you attract half a million customers and get their money, you have to answer to them and their expectations. Because the angry ones (and trust me, they get really angry since the money has already left their wallet) are the ones that will tweet about it. Post about it. Blog about it. Your reputation is your fan base and their reception of your game.

Backers are forced to follow through a painstaking process of watching their product of choice evolve into something they do not like (because nobody likes change after a threshold) and they feel cheated and alienated. They paid money for the promise of X, and there is a high chance a lot of people will not like v2.0 of X. 

The product at this stage is effectively the website and the Hangar module, and the UX of both is limited, full of promises and full of potential. A lot rides on this because they MUST deliver. Triple A franchises create a game, sell it, and then the rage starts if it doesn’t deliver. However, the difference in perception is one that can shatter brand loyalty and create the worst UX, the feeling of betrayal: if someone doesn’t like an Assassin’s Creed installment, they will think “Ubisoft failed at their job”. A Star Citizen fan that does not like the end-product after years of hype and anticipation will think “CiG and Chris Roberts failed me”.

For all the above reasons, I do not think that what happened with Star Citizen will happen again soon. I hope it shakes the industry, and I hope it sets a good example. But for now, I watch the community closely and coupling the development delays (people are still waiting for the promised Dogfighting module) with quite a lot of disagreement on what features should be part of the game and what shouldn’t within the community shows that a storm is always brewing. It creates a very unstable environment and a lot of pressure on the developers. Any mistake will not be forgiven and given time to fix, it will immediately be seen as a breach of trust. Backers may be irrational in that respect, but ultimately they are your users and you need to deliver a satisfying experience.

And that is an environment not all developers want to work in.

Disclaimer: I am a Star Citizen backer, and I fully support its development.

Image © Star-Citizen on Deviantart

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