For the most part, crowdfunding is all about public relations. The first thing most will see, if they see it at all, is a video addressed directly to them: the pitch video.
While first impressions matter, the Pitch is more than that. It is the catalyst for everything that follows in a crowdfunding campaign. In its guide for new projects, IndieGoGo stresses this immediately.
“One of the most important elements of every IndieGoGo project is the Pitch Clip! It reveals the story behind the story and provides a peek into who is making the project and why.
On IndieGoGo, projects with a video clip raise on average 122% more than projects without a clip. Further, research shows that people contribute to people they know.”
Kickstarter’s advice is similar. “If you’re like us, the first thing you do when visiting a project page is click play. A video is by far the best way to get a feel for the emotions, motivations, and character of a project. It’s a demonstration of effort and a good predictor of success. Projects with videos succeed at a much higher rate than those without (50% vs. 30%).”
From there, the campaign has to hit critical mass quickly or it will fail. For instance, a group of scientists have found a way entirely based on social media reception to determine whether any crowdfunding campaign will succeed or fail within four hours of its launch. As such, the want to appeal to the public, the want for word of mouth is strong.
Transfer of Control
Initially, the people behind the project have all the control. The message is one way, from project PR to whoever is listening on the internet. After that, though, it’s easy to lose control. Efforts by celebrities such as Spike Lee (director), Zach Braff (of Scrubs fame), Lord British, and Amanda Palmer, while they ultimately succeeded, had to battle excessive negative buzz including a skeptical, sometimes hostile press, having to do with a sentiment of, “aren’t they rich enough and well-connected already?” It’s a fair question. Couldn’t these celebrities have funded everything themselves out of pocket? Were they perhaps playing the public for suckers, so that they could minimize their risk if things didn’t work out? Couldn’t that money have been better spent on more needy, more deserving projects?
After the success of Spike Lee’s project, Kickstarter leapt to his defense. In a post entitled “The Truth About Spike Lee and Kickstarter”, argued that each successful Kickstarter celebrity project increases awareness of Kickstarter and brings thousands of new people into the fold, people who might be more inclined in the future to back something else. While an optimistic point, the more salient fact may be that the negative buzz about Spike Lee had gotten to an unpleasant enough drone to where it was actually hurting Kickstarter’s brand.
Projects with lesser celebrities backing them such as Broken Age (Tim Schafer) and Clang (Neal Stephenson) have also suffered from expectations differing from reality. Many Clang backers seemingly were expecting another Neal Stephenson book or a sword game or at least Neal Stephenson writing, despite the pitched project clearly being a motion controller, and a primitive sword game with no writing whatsoever.
Broken Age backers were expecting a fully formed idea, and an olden-style adventure game like Tim Schafer used to make whereas Schafer had definitely pitched something different: Some sort of new adventure game he was going to come up with if he got the money, with the entire process of coming up with the idea and making the game being turned into a documentary. Broken Age spent a significant portion of their campaign trying to correct fan expectations. For the most part, it never seemed like backers were collectively listening, preferring the idea of a new Tim Schafer game, rather than Tim Schafer’s actual idea.
The project getting delayed, going over budget, and expanding in scope all didn’t help. However, in each case Double Fine has turned things around by engaging their backers, arriving at compromises where possible, course correcting when feasible, and always pressing forward.
Many crowdfunding projects such as Old School RPG and Shadow of the Eternals have ended up fighting a losing battle because of negative media coverage and bad word of mouth which built and then built some more.
Shadow of the Eternals suffered from a number of issues: a prior (substantial) checkered history which had already destroyed one company, a refusal to address those issues, promises based on past nostalgia, and a narcissist in charge, all of which were sleuthed out by the collective hive mind of the internet, as it digitally muckraked… and did not like what it dug up. Failing to assuage concerns in its ongoing dialogue with its would-be backers, two successive Shadow of the Eternals campaigns failed, and the fledgling studio disbanded, its employees scattered, left to look for work elsewhere.
In Old School RPG a dream team of past game design greats had been assembled. Tom Hall and John Romero two of the key people behind the 1990’s megahit Doom, and Brenda Brathwaite who was beloved for her work on Wizardry 8. However, John Romero’s since soured reputation, primarily from his flop Daikatana, as well as the fact that he and Brathwaite were now engaged… as well as the fact that Romero was in charge of the new studio… as as well as the fact that the internet seemed to have forgotten all of the good games Tom Hall had made… as well as the pitch sounding rushed, unfinished, and heavy on attempted nostalgia appeal. (The opening pitch contained numerous references to 1980’s “cloth maps”, and the number of times the phrase “old-school RPG” was used was also off the charts.) The project was in trouble immediately, and ended up being canceled two weeks later.
(All this without Romero ever saying a word in the pitch video. His presence, apparently, was enough.)
The dual-game pitch was clearly all about Tom and Brenda, each of whom were to design one game. Romero’s studio went back to making budget phone games, and Tom Hall soon found work elsewhere.
Dealing With The Aftertaste
Projects have also succeeded, but left a bad taste left behind. Shadowrun Returns is the most prominent example with studio Harebraned Schemes forced to have to renege on certain promises due to new contractual obligations, as well as high backer expectations. This has resulted in doubt that Harebrained Schemes will be able to launch a second successful Kickstarter, if they so choose. Studio lead Jordan Weisman’s views are interesting to contrast. After the campaign completed but before Shadowrun Returns had been finished he was largely positive. By the time Shadowrun Returns was finished (six months late), he was not as enthused, stating it was the most stressful project he had worked on in 35 years, but soon launched a second successful Kickstarter.
In the end, when multi-million dollar public relation campaigns can lose control of their message multiple times, what hope do considerably smaller by comparison crowdfunding campaigns have? So far, crowdfunding project organizers and their carefully crafted PR campaigns are subject to the fickle winds and whims of the internet. The big question for this internet crowd: Where are they going next?