Pioneers: Kickstarter, FTL and possibly a joke idea for an invention if it doesn’t get cut.

Kickstarter Logo on a Wall

Pioneers is a column that focuses on discussions surrounding digital culture, including news, reviews and features of games and other webby things that are going on that are interesting. If you have something you”d like featured or think worth exploring get in contact.

Okay, so I”m going to blather on about Kickstarter – hear me out. I know you are probably sick to death of people talking about this in one way or another. Opinions you have read so far will have ranged from “Kickstarter is brilliant” to “Kickstarter is new” and all the way to “Kickstarter is a fraud”. They are all true to a certain extent, but I still think it”s worth sharing thoughts on this for us all to talk about, and give something of a nuanced account of what promises to be quite a significant cultural entity for the moment. Worry not, there”ll be a lovely little review of one of my favourite games of all time as part of this and maybe have some “jokes”. We”ll all have some fun, and then we can grow.

For those who don”t know, Kickstarter is a platform for crowdfunding stuff. It isn”t the only platform out there by any means – indiegogo,, CrowdTilt (a reddit inspired derivative), FundedByMe and many more are out there – but it is the most famous, and will be the example that we will provide a close reading.

For the uninitiated (can”t be that many now) the basic principle is this: say I have an idea.

This idea I have could be for anything vaguely creative, be it a film, an album, an artwork a game, software, service or a physical product – anything that thus far does not exist. Back in the old days, when the world was tinted sepia, printed on photographic paper and people bought things called “CD”s” (no I don”t know what we were thinking either), In this time, credit was cheap and given to any tom, dick or harry with anything that looked vaguely like it wasn”t a massive turd (and even then plastic turds were the joke product of choice and likely to get backing). But those days are going – and today things are different.

In the world we live in, my idea most likely can”t get investment from the usual sources. The banks keep themselves to themselves these days, and I don”t have enough savings of my own (unless you count a potentially expandable and tempting overdraft that looks oh so comfortable). Pretty much every public body for funding has had its internal organs ripped out by austerity measures of some variety and television shows like Dragon”s Den aren”t really for me as my idea is not “to look like an asshole in front of millions”. For my idea to find its way outside of my bizarrely decorated cranium, I”ll need to look elsewhere.

This is where Kickstarter comes in. Armed with only an idea, and perhaps a tuppence of enthusiasm, I can turn to the crowd for assistance and let them decide.

You set a target you need to reach, and promise things for people who pledge a certain amount – typical categories start from $15 which gets you a cd when it”s finished to the unique $500 personalised offerings of home visits/unique artwork and starring roles in the idea”s production – and then you go live. Until you reach your target, all of the money pledged rests in a Kickstarter account, and unless the target is reached, the money is given back to those who pledged. This means that if a community wants to see things made, they not only pledge money themselves, but share the idea in the hope of encouraging others to get behind it, so that the idea can be realised through the well wishing community. In essence you are presenting your product to a market but with only an outline of what that product will be.

From it”s honest inception, the project now finds itself in a problematic position. Firstly, the service has few means to enforce guarantees, meaning ideas for which money is pledged often fail to make it to the final production stage. In real terms, this means that even though money has been pledged the community of micro-investors may not receive the swag they were after. Although there have been very few, if any, projects that have done this intentionally, Kickstarter holds the potential for fraudulent use, but at the very least its reputation hovers on the brink of being soured by disgruntled customers unaware of the risk that exists at Kickstarter”s core.

What hasn”t helped this is the general movement of the Kickstarter community towards using the services like a supermarket of the future – both in the sense of being the next generation of marketplace, but also as some bizarre temporal store where the goods on offer are only ideas, set to be made once the investment is in place. In part this is the consequence of Kickstarter”s success, and as the website has grown in recognition, more and more have turned to the site and browse it”s virtual shelves looking for cool, unique and different stuff – but not in search of the main product that Kickstarter aimed to sell: social good.

Further to this, the community of people looking to kickstart ideas have themselves seen the service as a marketing platform to launch products which were either finished, or near enough finalised. Indie games on Kickstarter are one of the biggest perpetrators of this, for whom it is now near impossible to successfully launch a game, outside the main publishing behemoths, without engaging a community of some kind a la Kickstarter. Not only is this curiously prevalent in the indie game industry, but it also works – and everyone benefits. People get the game they want, the games find an audience, and get a little extra money to throw at marketing and promotion, which means that tail end market gets a little bigger. Obscurity is no longer the habitat of the humble indie game, but instead it is has evolved a family of well entertained hobbyists looking for a bargain and eager to share.

Perhaps the problem with Kickstarter as a whole, if it could be described as such, is that it has found an audience who don”t want what it provides, but can use it”s framework to do something that they do want. As is so often becoming the contemporary narrative, Kickstarter represents a kind of technology who”s intended use as proclaimed by an auteur or genius creator

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is undermined and twisted by an increasingly powerful and boisterous technoliterate audience, prodding and squeezing at its seems until it resembles something useable. This I would argue is not a failure of the platform, but instead an important step in the reaffirmation of an ideal.

If Kickstarter wants to do what it was intended to do – instead of merely presenting the next stage in disingenuous transformation of mass market and commercialism – it has to return to its community. Most importantly of all, and this is where my analysis becomes somewhat more socialist than I”m sure some reading this would like, something must be done to see resources raised plunged back into the service to fund things for which this market cannot provide.

Many of the shortcomings of the service exist in the audience it attracts. The affluent, white, middle class men and women of America and the rest of the West, who spend their time hanging out in digital terrains, are easily encouraged to such a service. As such the products and ideas that thrive are those which appeal to this kind of audience. There is a reason that games do so well on Kickstarter, and why many of the most viral projects seem to exist in the same world that apple creates (see TikTok, and Lunatik). Immediately one can imagine that if a project doesn”t catch on virally, or doesn”t pitch itself in the right way, it simply won”t get funded- no matter how worthwhile, and successful the idea could actually be. But far more problematic with this revelation, is if this services only serves a certain audience, it risks failing in the grand scale of things.

One of the most obvious ways to expose this kind of thinking is in an example: for the funding of a documentary. Now, the genre of documentary is often underpinned by presenting us with a world that we could not otherwise see – and more often than not, letting us watch images which we outright do not want to see. At the most noble end of the genre, documentaries are most powerful when exposing abuse, neglect and dishonesty in its foulest configurations, and occasionally present these to us with unpalatable rawness. In many instances this reality is not one which is easily stomached, let alone shared and funded particularly if the product”s final realisation is detrimental to those who funded it. Creating a film which challenges kickstarter, or which justifiably attacks the usual way of living for this audience, are unlikely to be funded. This is a decision by a market skewed in principle towards certain ideals.

Basically one aspect of my argument is for the service to cater for projects that *should* be funded as opposed to those that people *want* to be provided. How this works in reality is difficult to surmise, but I hope the principle of this idea carries water.

Similarly, in much the same way as Kickstarter could be argued to only cater for an audience that in many circles could be termed “middle class”, “hipsters” and even “geeks”, there are certain sections of the population who are downright excluded. The most easily identified of which are those who cannot use the service for whatever reason – perhaps because of financial limitations, who can”t use paypal (if it”s technically not in their country, or if they aren”t old enough to own a debit card, or who”s bank doesn”t sign up to their terms of service), or who flat out don”t have internet access, or for some other reason, technical or otherwise can”t engage with the service – alongside which I include the poor. Projects aimed directly or indirectly at these groups will struggle to find their footing against. And I don”t simple mean funding homeless shelters and simply directly welfare related projects or noble charity efforts – but actually funding things that these disenfranchised groups want as much as what they need (deliberately inverting my previous argument).

The importance of a service like Kickstarter becoming part of civic engagement is becoming more apparent, as new communities emerge to help with democratic projects that begin to step on the toes of government, in terms of urban planning, community development and general social endeavours; in so many countries investment in public provisions is emerging from the private sector in so called “Public Private Initiatives” which although helpful financially in the times of stretched economies, threaten to undermine the integrity of public projects.

A prevalent example you may not have noticed is the maintaining of public transport which have been funded by advertising agencies, who put money towards bus shelters and the like in exchange for having another place to put advertising. Imagine this principle attached to healthcare, schooling or other essential public services and you can begin to imagine where Kickstarter offers a potentially more democratic method of service.

McDonalds Advertising In a Bus Stop

This is what happens if you let private business work on public projects – it doesn”t even look anything like a school

One solution to aid this process, is for a small percentage of raised revenue to be injected back into some sort of community bank which can be pledged by those without the means to fund projects themselves, or which, like the green tokens in Waitrose, allow the community to invest in something they otherwise would not use their own money to fund. Whether Kickstarter adapts itself to accommodate such an idea or if another service steps into the fray, it would at least present a step in the right direction.

However, it is important not to get ahead of ourselves – for what Kickstarter claims to do, which is to make cool, creative things happen, it does the job pretty well, and their are few losers. It no doubt has its flaws for more socially virtuous purposes, but it doesn”t make explicit claim to make the world a better place. However, hidden within it is one which means the service steps beyond simply being problematic to fringing on the corner of devious. Kickstarter does well to disguise the fact that this is not about investment – putting in money to a project only sees that, it does not offer any sort of financial return at all.

Right now, instead of being a disruptive potential, Kickstarter, and other services, exist as the ideal location for a consumer market, which we had been led to believe had dried up lost in a drought of debt surrounded by sands without a drop of consumer confidence, and which now is adapting itself for survival in more palatable climes. Unless relationships between producer, labourer and consumer radically change, this will only return to the same problematic and exploitative conditions within which destructive and pervasive capitalism thrived.

If you don”t believe that Kickstarter has a problem, then you might be surprised to know that the service is itself making changes to the way it operates which I would suggest are in this general direction. In a recent blog post, the company reiterated that “Kickstarter is not a store”, outlining new rules of the service. Prominently, videos and images, and indeed any materials submitted to explaining ideas on the service, now must not be faked renderings, but only represent where the idea is right now. As well as this, projects must themselves promote investment with the context of challenges and risks that they face – an make sure people understand where promises are unlikely to be fulfilled.

Some might argue that Kickstarter is merely changing to keep the service on the right side of not being sued, but I would like to argue that its intentions are pure, and in pursuit of its potentially radical formulation.

People want to feel part of something before it becomes popular – and despite the cynic inside me who has, with a hipster dexterity, embarrassing experiences catching bands while they were still “so far underground the wombles didn”t have a fucking clue”, this is a good thing. People like to think of themselves as innovators and as good people, with much to contribute to their community and society in general. It would be nice if for once, these feelings were reflected by being something which genuinely was being these things, rather than just reflecting them.

Now, let me show you the future.

I just done a piss where your penis is like a garden sprinkler. If anyone wanted to kickstart a device that would stop this happening every so often, or conversely – and far more likely to be financially successful – if someone could make a nozzle which would guarantee my piss came out in different, and hilarious, shapes and speeds for summertime fun I would greatly appreciate this. FTL: Faster Than Light would be more fun than this device. What a smooth link.

Actually was one of the many games to have found its audience, and most of its funding, through a mega-successful Kickstarter campaign. Described, by those who know better than me at such things, as a “Spaceship Simulation Real Time Rogue Like”, you captain the defaultly named “The Kestral” (we”ll get to customisation in a minute) on the run from the rebel fleet. One side of the game sees you travel from star to star through sectors of space in a board game-like fashion, having to balance fear of capture at the hands of the rebels with ones natural knack for exploration, treading the tricky tightrope of distress beacons, stores and limited fuel supplies.

The other side of the game takes place at each location – simple text reveals decisions you must make, and dictates the scenarios for the many battles you have to undergo. Once a battles starts, which is more regular in certain quadrants of the galaxy, gameplay moves into real time, and you click the crew of your ship into the various rooms of your ship to help maintain weapons, engines and anything else with which you might be equipped. As you travel around and defeat enemies you gain scrap, which along with other random elements, can be used to upgrade and maintain your ship and crew until you reach the end when your ship, suitably well equipped for the final showdown.

A Screenshot from FTL

This is FTL. This isn”t me playing by the way – this is some chump who is running out of Oxygen pretty fast. I can”t see but I don”t think he”s even changed the names of his crew. The noob.

What makes this game great is permadeath – once your ship is destroyed, that is it. Game over. Back you head to the beginning with your tail between your legs, and with none of the cool shit you had accumulated or playing the past five hours. To the modern gamesplayer this might sound on the surface infuriating, but this is a refreshing return the retro days before soldiers were self medicating immortal overlords.

When taken back to the hangar, where your quest begins, the few options you have are what ship to take – which for most will be the one and only ship available from the beginning – and the names. You can”t change colours, you can barely choose configurations, and when you can these have to be earned – with few offering any actual advantages, only different ways to play the game. What I enjoy most however is being able to customise my ship and crew to sate my need for immaturity and, lego-like, to allow my imagination to recreate famous battles of sci-fi, fiction and what ever else my intoxicated brain can cope with.

Each play through feels like a story: written, narrated and enjoyed by you alone. The randomisation of what goes on means that not only are there few patterns to learn from (adding a whole extra level of luck to the game”s difficulty), but each playthrough becomes a unique story, and with every death a neuron in your head is born that at a moment”s drunken notice in some shadowy space bar you can be recalled to recount the tales of the HMS Penis, captained by Sir Spermazoid. May he rest in peace.

The title of the game reveals a deeper truth – when playing, it is genuinely feels like reaching speeds in excess of light, as if time itself is no longer constant; moments turn into hours, and days are lost in addictive gameplay and imaginative roleplay. One-more-game syndrome very often leads me to uninstall a game for fear of losing my (real) life to its addictive clutches, but FTL is a game that as yet has resisted this temptation. It”s just too damn fun. Hopefully, if the developers flesh out the scenarios (with rumoured over 25,000 lines of gameplay already scripted for the game, their shortcomings here only reflect just how much this awesome game demands you to play) then this will become a classic as much as the influences it hoped to emulate.

Next week I will probably step it up a notch and try to look at videos, television and broadcast stuff that you might not know about (in the UK at least) or else have a look at trends in watching video games – but if something else turns up point me to it, I would love to hear what you think is worth checking out.

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