Noah J Nelson on Thursday, May. 21st
2015 has been an interesting year for crowdfunding… at least it sure as heck feels that way to me. Big projects are back in vogue and there’s talk again about how “superstar” projects are messing things up for the little guys. More on that in a moment, first, because we’ve got our eye on the ball I thought we’d break out an old favorite practice: the Latte Fund.
The ten of you who religiously read our crowdfunding content here will remember the Latte Fund as a little thing we used to do at the end of our crowdfunding podcast. We’d have each of the panelists pick a project they thought was worth $5— the price of a fancy latte here in LA. That’s with tip, by the way.
I’ve kept my scanners online this week and have let a few PR pitches pique my curiosity, so here are a few projects that caught my attention, and one that is my pick of the week for the Fund.
FOR THE LOW TECH FIX FANS
I may live to regret responding to random PR pitches—oh let’s be honest, I already do—but every once in a while there’s one that is just charming enough that other people deserve to hear about it.
That’s how I feel about SoundScoopZ, a peel and stick plastic wedge that redirects the audio coming out of a flat screen TV and shifts it forward. That’s it, that’s all it does. The pitch video is low-tech and almost the furthest thing from “slick” imaginable.
It inspired me to screw around with a magazine for a few minutes and see if bouncing the audio from my own flat panel off that made a difference. Low and behold it did, at least a bit.
Look, this isn’t one of those Kickstarter projects that’s going to change your life irrevocably, but maybe it’s a cheap alternative to shelling out a few hundred bucks for a soundbar. Is it the exact definition of a Latte Fund piece? No. There’s little point to backing this one if you don’t want to give the product a whirl.
It’s just nice knowing that not all the products being pushed on Kickstarter are apps and gadgets looking to “disrupt” and “revolutionize” industries… some of them are just for making the things we already have suck less.
One of the more interesting phenomenon of this year has been the return of successful businesses back to Kickstarter. We saw that with the latest edition of the Pebble watch, and it’s on display again with the Radian 2: a time lapse photography set-up that is an iteration of the original Radian.
Alright, so this is another project that doesn’t quite make it in for the Latte Fund. The team has already cleared the goal and five bucks won’t have an altruistic impact.
What the project suggests, however, is that the line between community platform and pre-order system continues to be blurry on Kickstarter. There are a percentage of people coming in at reward levels for the project that are well below the reward tiers that would give the the product.
This almost seems strange to me: why go back to the Kickstarter well when you have your own customer base? Is the amplification effect of the platform just that good? I’m not trying to suggest it isn’t, I am genuinely curious. I look at something like Star Citizen which has managed to raise millions and its own platform and wonder why more businesses don’t follow that model once they’ve danced their first dance with a crowdfunding platform.
Perhaps it’s that they don’t want to sink the costs into developing community management tools of their own while at the same time enjoy the benefits of the platform’s own reach. Which makes a case for the crowdfunding platforms themselves being valuable over the long run.
A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE DEADLY IMPACT OF THE BANALITY OF EVIL
And now, my actual Latte Fund pick of the week. Currently funding on Seed & Spark is the documentary Normal Valid Lives:
((The)) story of how Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District made national headlines as hostile, dangerous, and potentially lethal for LGBTQ students and how a group of brave and determined people fought to change that –– and won.
The pitch video for the production is news and town hall footage that has been cut together, and in that cutting you can see the skill of the filmmakers at work. At the end of the day the art of the documentary is the art of editing. A good doc can be edited to make archival footage and talking heads compelling, while a terrible doc can take original material and carve it into an unwatchable mess.
Based on the reel alone I want to see Normal Valid Lives, and it hits hard in the gut with the idea that bureaucratic apathy and malfeasance kills. It’s material like this that the Latte Fund was made for. As of this writing the filmmakers are at 12% of their goal.
ONE LAST THING
Game designer Katie Chironis authored an Op-Ed at Polygon this week entitled “‘Big indie’ Kickstarters are killing actual indies.”
Now on the surface this seems like an old argument: that “famous” creators are threatening to crowd out small time makers and eat up all the cash. We’ve seen that argument get spanked time and time again by the platform holders, who trot out numbers showing that a not insignificant percentage of the backers of these “brand name” project are first timers who then go exploring for other projects to back. A win/win scenario if there ever was one.
Chironis’ argument, however, has some nuances to it that are worth chewing over. Namely, she points out that some of these big projects are actually backed by investors and studios, who aren’t looking for cash from the campaigns so much as proof of interest. The goals of these campaigns are set at a fraction of what the final project budget will be—or already is—and the crossing of the goal line either unleashes the rest of those funds or activates bonuses.
For mid-tier projects with budgets in the low millions this is a great tactic. Creators demonstrate interest without having to get their followers to shoulder all the costs. Investors see how many early adopters are willing to come on board with a concept alone. That’s another win/win for the people involved in the project: backers, creators, and investors.
But is it good for the overall health of the crowdfunding ecosystem?
This kind of structure can, Chironis argues, set up unrealistic expectations amongst the broad crowdfunding public about what kind of game can be produced on lower budgets. This, of course, assumes that those who back crowdfunding projects don’t look too deeply into financial details of any given project.
Experience tells us that many do, some even do staggering amounts of due diligence on creator’s claims. Yet it is not this part of the audience that is at risk of getting confused about what is possible with a $500,000 budget. It’s the theoretical “hidden part of the iceberg” meant to represent the gaming community at large who may casually look at two projects with crowdfunding goals of half a million dollars and conflate that with budgets of half a million and wonder about the massive differences in production value.
Given that crowdfunding is as much a game of perception management as it is of accounting this should not be a small concern.
My own instinct is that transparency will keep the community as a whole healthy, but there’s almost every incentive for campaigns to not be transparent when seven-figure goals make average folks balk.
The one thing I know for certain: not playing it square with fans on these platforms would ultimately wreck the things for everybody. There’s a path forward for big and little “indies”—both in games and film—so long as creators are willing to be up front with what they are doing.