How long has it been since Kickstarter exploded onto the scene? My first pledged project was about 2 1/2 years ago, but there have been so many since. Some were successful, some weren’t; some have produced a film or a game and some are still running. Sometimes the results were mixed, but by and large I’m in the happy position of being able to say: I have contributed, in some small way, to the existence of a number of works that otherwise wouldn’t exist – and that’s a cool thing to be able to say.
I don’t want to overstate the effect my contributions have had; I didn’t tip the scales for any of the projects I pledged to, I was usually one of many thousands. Yes, a handful of the projects I supported were touch and go, but I’m still one of many. Nevertheless, for all the collectivist benefits of Kickstarter, with each of the successfully completed projects I got my hands on – whether the result was a movie or a game – I did get a frisson of “I did this!”, or perhaps rather “I was a patron to this!” In my very small way, I’ve been a mini-Pope Julius II to, say, the Veronica Mars movie or Wasteland 2.
And let me tell you: patronage is addictive. I’ve reduced but not kicked (no pun intended) my Kickstarting habit, but during the first year or so my patronage muscle was twitchy as hell. I don’t regret any of the pledges I’ve made – or, more accurately, I may not have been entirely satisfied with all of the resulting works, but I was still happy having pledged to begin with. Knowing that a group of artists with an idea that probably wouldn’t have survived the cold, hard realities of the free market were able to work on a project close to their hearts? That’s worth a lot – definitely more than putting money into the latest highly polished, much advertised but essentially generic triple-A hit. Put it this way: if you could do your bit to make Kristen Bell happier, what would that be worth to you? (As I said: Kickstarter is addictive – and most addictions aren’t necessarily altogether healthy.)
That closer emotional engagement has its flipside, though: if something I’m invested in turns out not to meet my expectations, it’s difficult not to take that personally. A couple of months ago, Divinity: Original Sin, a role-playing game I’d Kickstarted, came out to roundly enthusiastic reviews, and my endorphin levels went up with every piece of critical acclaim that I saw… until I played the game. Don’t get me wrong: Divinity: Original Sin, regardless of its silly title, is a good game and a typical case of something that simply might not exist in this form without Kickstarter. Whatever would be different if they’d made the game with the support of a traditional publisher wouldn’t address my issues with it. But I supported the project predicated on certain promises that I interpreted one way but that were meant another way. I don’t feel like the developers, Larian, lied to me – but it does feel more deflating to follow a project, read the update posts, religiously watch every behind-the-scenes video, and then check out the end result to find that my expectations were… inaccurate? Misguided? A bit naive?
Patronage doesn’t give me the right to expect a result that pleases me in every way possible. It’d be wrong to think that Larian was at fault for creating a game that meets their expectations but veers away somewhat from mine. I’m still glad I supported the project, out of principle, because more artists and craftspeople should be free to create things that risk-averse publishers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. But what I’ve learnt is this: Kickstart at your own peril, and manage your own expectations. In some ways I’m probably more disappointed with Divinity than with the handful of projects that reached their pledge goal but then failed in development, because the project lead had miscalculated or because the team consisted of one passionate person who fell ill and could no longer afford working on that particular dream. In the end, what’s more important to me: doing my small part to enable an artist to follow their vision, or wanting them to follow m*, even though the latter is vague even to me? (“I know it when I see it” doesn’t make for very stringent design or criticism.) Based on my Kickstarter experiences to date, I shall have to accept that a feeling of ownership is not the same thing as actually owning something. I support the Kickstarter projects, but they’re not mine. If I’m lucky – and that luck can be helped along by using my brains as much as my gut to decide what to back – I may like or even love the end result, but patronage doesn’t entitle you to liking the end result. Who knows, perhaps Julius the Second looked at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and thought: “If Eve ends up with cow-eyed Adam instead of that hunky David guy, the whole thing sucks. Team David all the way!” If he did, I hope he had the good sense to keep quiet about it.