Amplitude’s Delay Epitomizes What’s Wrong With Kickstarter

Did you hear? Amplitude was delayed — again. That’s right, in news that should surprise no one at this point, another Kickstarter game was delayed well past its initial delivery timeframe. But it’s the reasoning behind the delay that’s so frustrating; check out what Harmonix’s Alex Rigopulos wrote in the latest update (emphasis added):

“The game is fulfilling all of our hopes and ambitions for it, and at a certain point, we made a major call: We’ve decided to double down, increase the project budget, and make the new Amplitude bigger and better than the scope of game we originally pitched to you all last year. […]

So that’s all of the good news. Now for the bad news that comes along with it: It’s impossible for us to finish all of these extra songs, environments, features and modes on the same schedule. Our previous target for shipping the game was this summer. Now that we’ve committed to this expanded scope, though, we won’t be able to complete and ship the game until the end of this year on PS4 (with the PS3 version coming shortly thereafter). […] We want to over-deliver for our biggest supporters, and that’s simply going to require some extra time.”

Again, it should surprise no one, but yes, a Kickstarter game developer has decided to unfurl its ambitions, start adding more content, more modes, more features, more, more, more, all in service of delivering a game that’s “bigger and better” that the one promised. (Oh, by the way, that requires more time and more money, so the game’s coming a year late. Oops.)

Plain and simple, Kickstarter games have an awful track record. Developers promise more than they can realistically deliver, promise to release the game by a date they can’t realistically hit, and in the case of Amplitude, try so hard to make the “ultimate” version of the game that they let ambition take over and watch as the budget creeps upward and the release date creeps outward. To be clear, this is the second time Amplitude has been delayed.

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But Amplitude is only endemic of the larger issue, and there have been many other high-profile offenders preceding it: 22 Cans’ Godus, Comcept’s Mighty No. 9 and of course, Double Fine’s Broken Age, which asked for $400,000, received $3,336,371 instead and still managed to go over-budget, releasing the first half of the game two years past the original date and the second half three years past.

Keep in mind, those are just the high-profile games; plenty of smaller projects are just as bad and go entirely unnoticed by most. Have you heard of Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption? It wouldn’t surprise me if you hadn’t. Corey and Lori Cole raised $409,150 in 2012 to make an old-school RPG set for release in 2013. By 2015, Hero-U still hadn’t come out and the Coles had burned through their entire Kickstarter cash flow, so they went back to Kickstarter in May to collect another $116,888, now promising the game will come out in March 2016. Even then, the Coles are still pretty strapped for cash:

We are literally betting our house on the success of this game. We are currently funding development with a home equity loan, and we are not taking any salary or other compensation until Hero-U launches and we repay the debts.

Now, that’s an awful situation to be in, but it never should’ve happened to begin with — when you’re “currently funding development with a home equity loan” after raising $400,000 for two people to make a game, you have only yourselves to blame. That’s bad management and bad budgeting.

Only a third of Kickstarter games fully deliver to their backers, and that’s not even giving consideration to whether they delivered on-time; that’s just if they ever delivered at all. In December 2012, CNN Money did an analysis of the top 50 Kickstarter projects at the time with release dates of November 2012 or earlier, contacted each of the creators for the status of the project, and found that only eight had delivered on-time, or in other words, 84% of the Kickstarter projects shipped late.

Just look how much money that becomes:

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$21.6 million went to Kickstarter projects that had yet to materialize, and to be clear, that study did not count projects that had been formally canceled after they had been funded — that’s $21.6 million specifically for projects still ongoing.

So we return to Amplitude, which adds $844,127 to the total of outstanding money for Kickstarter games that still haven’t delivered. Harmonix’s latest update promises all sorts of new modes, a near-doubling of songs and more being added to the game, but also—hilariously—mentions that no, there’s still not enough money for online multiplayer:

Some of you might wonder—will this delay mean that synchronous online multiplayer will be added? I’m sorry to say, it will not, as that is impossible within our budget means for this game, even with the expanded budget.

Given that online multiplayer was a stretch goal if the project reached $1.125 million, it feels like Harmonix is rubbing backers’ noses in the fact that they didn’t give enough money. Maybe for the campaign for Amplitude 2 you’ll learn to donate like you actually want the game, they’re saying. (I’d like to make a quick note here that I did not contribute to the Amplitude campaign.)

Like Double Fine before it, Harmonix is a developer that is generally well-liked, so it gets a fair amount of leeway and positive spin even in the face of delays: “PS4/PS3’s Amplitude Delayed Again, But Song List Almost Doubles” and “Amplitude reboot has been delayed to January 2016 for a very good reason” come to mind as optimistic examples. But even Tim Schafer’s charisma could only last Double Fine so long, and eventually fan opinion turned on the company.

Harmonix is walking a fine line here. Most fans seem pretty receptive to the idea of more content, but what if it slips again? How thin can Harmonix stretch its fans’ patience before it snaps?

It’s all well and good to make big promises, to expand your vision for a game, and to want—as Rigopulos put it—”to over-deliver.” But do you know what would qualify as “over-delivering” on a Kickstarter game at this point? Releasing on-budget and on-time.

Games go over-budget all the time. Games get delayed all the time. Developing a game is really hard. So when a Kickstarter game fails to meet its promises, that’s not automatically a sign to pick up the pitchforks and torches. It’s when developers decide “you know what, we can make it bigger and better” that it becomes a problem.

When fans pledge more money than a developer asked for, it shouldn’t inevitably lead to inflated ambitions that end up pushing the release date back; it should provide a comfortable safety net so a developer can successfully make the game originally promised without having to take out a home equity loan.