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Star Citizen: A cautionary tale of Kickstarter and crowdfunding

(TECH NEWS) Why is the most funded game in history still in development and has no clear release date? Why crowdfunding as a concept cannot be seen as reliable from a backer’s perspective.

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Magnifying glass over Kickstarter URL and site, a crowdfunding website.

Kickstarter – at its core – is a brilliant idea (and I wish I’d thought of it first). Creating a funding platform to literally allow anyone to bring an idea to fruition by asking for – essentially – seed capital and investors en masse via crowdfunding is truly appealing in every sense of the word. Originally a stronghold of new inventions, gadgets, and apparel, it quickly spread into the entertainment industry as well, with hobbyist game developers, auteur filmmakers, and first time writers given the chance to use crowdfunding to breathe life into their creations.

Star Citizen first appeared on the Kickstarter platform way back in 2012 and was hailed as the next great space simulation game. The campaign was started by Chris Roberts – one of the grand masters of the genre – who created the legendary Wing Commander series while working at Origin Systems. While these might be unfamiliar to non-gamers, anyone who played computer and console games in the 80s and 90s would recognize each name as a juggernaut of the industry.

Without going into specifics, this is the equivalent of Steven Spielberg asking for money to make Montana Miles, a new franchise centered around an ace paleontologist and all around tough guy roughneck adventurer who maybe had a run in or two with certain historical societies while pursuing artifacts from an ancient and forgotten world.

Ol’ Steve is definitely gonna get backers. To really set this up, imagine he asked for money in the late 80s. That’s the kind of perfect storm situation we’d have here.

Star Citizen managed to bring in over $2.1 million from nearly 35,000 backers at its inception, and the fervor and excitement was high. This was due to the pedigree of those involved in the project and the fact that a massive space sim had not seen release in several years (the video game industry – like many others – goes through cycles, with certain properties and genres fading into and out of popularity). Fans eagerly donated, and it reached its original $500K goal quickly, with 9 people contributing $10,000 each and another 19 pledging $5,000.

Since then, additional crowdfunding was conducted by giving fans the option to buy ships and other digital goods to be used in-game, bringing the total to $339 million in the past 10 years (accounting for pre-production and other planning that was done prior to the Kickstarter campaign).

Backing up for a second, consider that I just said 10 years. Which doesn’t sound too bad until you consider that the game is still not out and has no projected release date. If you go to their website, you can be directed to their Pledge Store to purchase ships and other items for a game that isn’t even done, and last released new public material way back in 2015. A side project meant to appease and entice backers – Squadron 42 – just announced its own delay.

And the developers have more or less given no reassurance or updated timelines. The prevailing theory is that this is the result of feature creep, but even this has sparked a number of heated discussions and angry denial from the developers.

Understandably, gamers are angry, and are (perhaps justifiably) lashing out (I won’t link to Reddit or any other forums, but it’s easy to sniff these out). There’s even a (hilarious) Imgur repository of broken promises and failed deliverables against a backdrop of developer feel-good rhetoric. At least one lawsuit has been filed.

Let me take a moment here to say that the gaming industry is no stranger to delays, and has also seen games be released in broken states. The biggest recent example is Sony pulling Cyberpunk 2077 from its digital storefront and offering refunds. Cyberpunk 2077 is the biggest and most anticipated game at the moment, but has been delayed countless times, suffered numerous glitches, crashes, is otherwise unplayable on console platforms (both the Playstation 4 and Xbox One), and been called a disaster.

Let’s not even go into talking about the legacy of delayed games, which stretches from Daikatana, Duke Nukem Forever, No Man’s Sky (though it should be noted that Hello Games has worked tirelessly to rectify the game’s original dismal state against its many, many promises)… The list goes on.

But we’re getting a little off course here by looking at traditionally funded games (even if there are dozens of problems there too). In terms of pure Kickstarter-funded debacles? There’s lots of examples, including DoubleFine’s Broken Age (famous for being the first major game to be crowdfunded and a story in and of itself), SpaceVenture (now over seven years late), and whatever it was that Yogscast game was trying to do (relevant because this was one of the biggest Youtube groups at the time). What about when backers paid for the Oculus Rift, only to have it purchased
outright by Facebook before it was even released to backers?

There’s too many fascinating and infuriating rabbit holes to go through.

So let’s talk about Kickstarter directly for a bit, because if we’re going to play the blame game (hah!), then we certainly need to consider their participation. As it stands, Kickstarter continues to operate with almost no oversight, and has remained a silent and invisible actor throughout these failures. In effect, they are a neutral third party.

Even worse, Kickstarter themselves say that a creator is under zero obligation to complete their project, and relies heavily on the fact that each and every crowdfunding campaign functions in a benefit of the doubt construct. If a creator reaches funding and is never heard from again, Kickstarter maintains that not only will they not pursue any kind of legal action, but doubles down on blaming the investing audience by stating that they knew the risks upfront. Put bluntly: Kickstarter has a very convenient excuse that “art works by different rules.”

In almost all instances, this has resulted in incomplete and abandoned projects, often fueled by lies, deception, and fraud. And yet, Kickstarter has dodged any and all liability, and it’s unlikely that backers can easily exercise any kind of legal action. A similar situation would be taking a contractor to court over an unfinished job, but having no way to actually enforce restitution even under a favorable judgement.

This doesn’t even take into account that there’s a chance of a rogue backer voicing so much dissatisfaction that they sue a company into bankruptcy. Sure, this sounds like reasonable punishment, is entirely legal, and conceivably is well within the rights of that person. But even so, does the blame lie with an inexperienced creator, impossibly high standards set by a (debatably unreasonable) customer, or with Kickstarter being an enabler?

The lofty goals of Kickstarter set against this backdrop of numerous pitfalls suddenly tarnishes its efficacy and integrity, exacerbated by a laundry list of what ifs and potentialities. There’s simply too many legal issues to navigate when it comes to crowdfunding.

I’m not even going to start going into more examples of failed Kickstarter projects, outright scams, and other clear cut bits of fraud and swindling.

Real quick, I want to mention a few other things – similar crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo have the same issues, GoFundMe is not without its own controversies, and Valve’s digital marketplace Steam gives developers the same loophole via its Early Access program by allowing them to keep a game in a forever-limbo state.

So I guess the lesson here is that all of these crowdfunding platforms should be treated with a similar attitude you might have when playing the lottery. At the least, try to vet the creator beforehand, as there are certainly viable companies that have run successful campaigns in the past. I encourage you to read user comments on a campaign’s page, research the company in question (have they put out successful products previously?), and be financially ready to lose the money you might put into a shiny new hypothetical.

Robert Snodgrass has an English degree from Texas A&M University, and wants you to know that yes, that is actually a thing. And now he's doing something with it! Let us all join in on the experiment together. When he's not web developing at Docusign, he runs distances that routinely harm people and is the kind of giant nerd that says "you know, there's a King of the Hill episode that addresses this exact topic".

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. joe

    January 6, 2021 at 3:45 pm

    4 Years ago, those so called angry gamer (0.02% as per reddit followers count) predicted CIG will never make ships for in game credits but only $… This feature is in game since more than tow years.
    They predicted 2019 will be the worst year for funding… it was the best.
    They predicted CIG won’t be able to finish 2020… 2020 funding crushed 2019
    They explained SC was a niche… +200.000 NEW backers in 2020 on top of the 800.000 others backers.

    We did not read yet prediction for 2021 but expect a collapse 90 days top! ?

    Factually CIG did released a new roadmap in Dec. 2020 showing their internal Jira process, IE, the very details of every teams working on the different aspect of Star Citizen (MMO) and Squadron 42 (solo). A lot of contents, remaining core tech and new gameplay is coming in 2021. Greta for the space gamer community at large… all for 45$, less than a soulless sequel done by Publishers.

  2. Backcountry164

    January 7, 2021 at 1:42 am

    The lottery?!? Lol! Please point me to the lottery where 99+% of tickets pay out at least the value of the ticket…

  3. C. A.

    January 7, 2021 at 4:30 am

    Technically, these crowdfunding platforms can be used for running ‘scams’ and there is no chance of being able to get any legal compensation. It is only a fine line between failed projects and scams and no real way if telling the difference.

  4. Scott C.

    January 7, 2021 at 6:48 am

    I argue that the problem isn’t “crowdfunding” as a funding solution, but perhaps it should prohibit “game funding”. Further, your article is not factual on several points, but seed rounds and venture type capital are speculative and always have been. It’s the risk/reward scenario. Your article is reckless, and ill-informed.

  5. Jeremiah Harvey

    January 7, 2021 at 9:32 am

    What a terrible all over the place rant version of an article. You forgot to blame computers themselves while you were at it. Another sad writer who hasn’t a clue.

  6. Kris Roberto

    January 7, 2021 at 10:37 pm

    “and last released new public material way back in 2015.”

    WTF are you talking about? They release updates and patches and new content all the time. Try educating yourself on the topic before writing a pointless fluff piece. You’re embarrassing yourself. And don’t take me for some white knight fanboy – SC and CIG have many problems and done plenty of annoying, sketchy BS and went back on their promises countless times. Try doing some real digging and write about actual, real problems.

  7. Jabba

    January 7, 2021 at 11:01 pm

    The “revelation” of this take is 3 years old lol

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AI technology is using facial recognition to hire the “right” people

(TECH NEWS) Artificial intelligence (AI) technology has made its way into the hiring process and while the intentions are good, I vote we proceed with extreme caution.

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AI technology facial recognition

Artificial intelligence technology has made its way into the hiring process and while the intentions are good, I vote we proceed with extreme caution.

A UK based consumer goods giant, Unilever, is just one of several UK companies who have begun using AI technology to sort through initial job candidates. The goal of this technology is to increase the number of candidates whom a company can interview at the initial stages of the hiring process and to improve response time for those candidates.

The AI, developed by American company Hirevue, analyzes a candidate’s language, tone, and facial expression during a video interview. Hirevue insists that their product is different from traditional facial recognition technologies because it analyzes far more data points.

Hirevue’s chief technology officer, Loren Larsen, says, “We get about 25,000 data points from 15 minutes of video per candidate. The text, the audio and the video come together to give us a very clear analysis and rich data set of how someone is responding, the emotions and cognitions they go through.”
This data is then used to rank candidates on a scale of 1 to 100 against a database of traits identified in previously successful candidates.

There are two main flaws to this system. First, unless this AI technology is pulling from a huge diverse data pool it could be unintentionally discriminating against people without even being aware of it. Human bias is not as easy to remove from the equation as AI proponents would have you believe.

As an example, how does this AI handle people who are disabled or whose facial expressions that read differently than the general population, such as people with Down Syndrome or those who have survived traumatic facial injuries?

Second, seeking to hire someone who possess the same qualities as the person who was previously successful at a role is shortsighted. There are many ways to accomplish the same task with above average results. Companies who adopt this low-risk mentality could be missing out on great opportunities long-term. You will never know what actually works best if you don’t try.

The big question here is whether or not AI technology is ready to influence the job market on this scale.

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The ‘move fast and break things’ trend is finally over

(TECH NEWS) Time is running out for this decade — and for a popular Big Tech phrase responsible for a lot of collateral damage. What’s next?

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big tech move fast break stuff

Time is running out for the decade. With less than 20 days left, it’s got us reflecting on the journeys of different economic sectors in the United States. And no industry has had a more tumultuous time of it than Big Tech.

A lot has changed in ten years. For starters, Americans have become increasingly disillusioned with Silicon Valley. The Pew Research Center found that only 50 percent of Americans believe technology firms have a positive effect on the country. That statistic is not too bad on its own, but that’s down 21 percent from only four years ago. Gallup found in 2019 that 48 percent of Americans also want more regulations on Big Tech. And The New York Times called the 2010s as “the decade Big Tech lost its way”.

Maybe that’s why big wigs at these tech firms have been quietly ditching a concept that was their Golden Rule in the early part of the decade: Move Fast and Break Things.

This concept is a modern take on the adage “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” For most of these firms, any innovation justified some of the collateral damage within its wake. And this scrappy “build it now and worry about it later” philosophy was a favorite of not just Facebook and Twitter, but also of many venture capital firms too.

But not anymore. Outlets from Forbes to HBR are saying this doesn’t work for Big Tech in the 2020s. Here are some reasons why it’s over.

Stability

The Move Fast and Break Things manta encouraged devs to push their coding changes to go live and let the chips fall where they may. But bugs pile up. Enter technical debt.

“Technical debt happens every time you do things that might get you closer to your goal now but create problems that you’ll have to fix later,” said The Quantified VC in an article on Medium. “As you move fast and break things, you will certainly accumulate technical debt.”

If enough technical debt comes into play, any new line of code could be the thing that topples a firm like a house of cards. And now that the consumer is used to tech in their daily routines, interruptions in service are extremely bad news for everyone.

As Mark Zuckerburg himself said it: “When you build something that you don’t have to fix 10 times, you can move forward on top of what you’ve built.”

Trust

To get back some of the trust that has ebbed from Big Tech over the years, firms can’t just keep with the Move Fast and Break Things status quo.

“The public will continue to grow weary of perceived abuses by tech companies, and will favor businesses that address economic, social, and environmental problems,” said Hemant Taneja in his article for Harvard Business Review. “Minimum viable products must be replaced by minimum virtuous products that … build in guards against potential harms.”

It’s not about chasing the bottom dollar at the cost of the consumer. Losing trust will hurt any company if left unchecked for long.

Innovation

There’s a cap on advancement in our current technological state. It’s called Moore’s Law. And we’re rapidly approaching the theoretical limits of it.

“When you understand the fundamental technology that underlies a product or service, you can move quickly, trying out nearly endless permutations until you arrive at an optimized solution. That’s often far more effective than a more planned, deliberate approach,” said Greg Satell in his article for HBR.

Soon enough, Big Tech will be in relatively new waters with quantum computing, biofeedback and AI. There’s no way to move as fast as these technology firms have in the past. And even if they could, should they?

Big Tech has experienced major growing pains since the dawn of our new Millenium. And now that some firms are entering their 20s, there’s a choice to be made. Continue to grow up or keep using an idea that’s worn out it’s welcome with the consumer and that has no guarantee will work with future technologies.

Maybe that’s why Facebook’s motto is now “Move Fast with Stable Infrastructure.”

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Computer vision helps AI create a recipe from just a photo

(TECH NEWS) It’s so hard to find the right recipe for that beautiful meal you saw on tv or online. Well computer vision helps AI recreate it from a picture!

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computer vision recreates recipe

Ever seen at a photo of a delicious looking meal on Instagram and wondered how the heck to make that? Now there’s an AI for that, kind of.

Facebook’s AI research lab has been developing a system that can analyze a photo of food and then create a recipe. So, is Facebook trying to take on all the food bloggers of the world now too?

Well, not exactly, the AI is part of an ongoing effort to teach AI how to see and then understand the visual world. Food is just a fun and challenging training exercise. They have been referring to it as “inverse cooking.”

According to Facebook, “The “inverse cooking” system uses computer vision, technology that extracts information from digital images and videos to give computers a high level of understanding of the visual world,”

The concept of computer vision isn’t new. Computer vision is the guiding force behind mobile apps that can identify something just by snapping a picture. If you’ve ever taken a photo of your credit card on an app instead of typing out all the numbers, then you’ve seen computer vision in action.

Facebook researchers insist that this is no ordinary computer vision because their system uses two networks to arrive at the solution, therefore increasing accuracy. According to Facebook research scientist Michal Drozdzal, the system works by dividing the problem into two parts. A neutral network works to identify ingredients that are visible in the image, while the second network pulls a recipe from a kind of database.

These two networks have been the key to researcher’s success with more complicated dishes where you can’t necessarily see every ingredient. Of course, the tech team hasn’t stepped foot in the kitchen yet, so the jury is still out.

This sounds neat and all, but why should you care if the computer is learning how to cook?

Research projects like this one carry AI technology a long way. As the AI gets smarter and expands its limits, researchers are able to conceptualize new ways to put the technology to use in our everyday lives. For now, AI like this is saving you the trouble of typing out your entire credit card number, but someday it could analyze images on a much grander scale.

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