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Buying Hypothetical Products
Kickstarter is just another form of entertainment
July 10, 2012

Also: I expanded the ideas in this post into a short article for Fast Company, Kickstarter: Crowdfunding Platform Or Reality Show?

The web is flipping out today over the OUYA, a hypothetical new videogame console posted today on Kickstarter. It promises "A New Kind of Video Game Console," but it's really just an Android device with yet another 30%-take uncurated app store with free-to-play games strapped to a TV. They've raised 3/4 of their $950,000 goal in less than a day, which is impressive.

Like many Kickstarters, the details are scant, and many questions about the device and its role in the market are left unanswered. But to understand OUYA, we need to focus in front of the purported features of the nonexistent product, at the Kickstarter project itself.

I wrote a Gamasutra column a while back that partly characterizes crowdfunding projects on Kickstarter and elsewhere as fantasies. That is, what you're doing when you fund something like OUYA is not buying a new console that will be made and marketed with enough funding, but purchasing the entertainment value of expressing your support for such a hypothetical console. The fact that it's raised so much money so fast speaks more to our fantasies than the market reality. The risk is not that OUYA will disrupt the console market, really (how could we know?) but that the Ouya Kickstarter itself will fulfill the desire for the device. Baudrillard-like, we don't even need the actual disruption (or the games that would deliver it); the pleasure of participating in hypothetical disruption is sufficient.

More than sufficient, even. I've funded several Kickstarter projects (hello, Twine) for which I've still received nothing save Kickstarter updates. Others I funded and received months late and to considerable disappointment (hello, Pen Type-A) When faced with the reality of these products, they just irk me—not just because they're too little too late (if at all) but for even weirder reasons. We don't really want the stuff. We're paying for the idea, not the product. For the pleasure of desiring it. For the experience of watching it succeed beyond expectations or to fail dramatically. Kickstarter is just another form of entertainment.

Comments (15)
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Sort of like buying a lottery ticket allows you to dream about living in a mansion without the hassle of actually having to oversee its maintenance.

I funded it because it's so focused on indie games. For MS, Sony, and Nintendo, we are like an unimportant side thing, to be forever overshadowed by the likes of Gears of War and Tomb Raider.

I feel like crowdfunding is replacing the friends & family round of funding.

The downside to that is that people who get crowdfunded don't feel the same level of obligation to succeed for some anonymous person on the Internet they just shipped a t-shirt to as they do for their parents after they've invested part of their retirement.

When I look at my personal funding history, it has actually only been people I've known and would have participated in a friends & family fund anyway.

So going back to your point, it seems like Kickstarter is people buying non-existent products from people who might not be that interested in making them in the first place.

Dakota Reese Brown on July 10, 2012 4:08 PM

I see the model evolving from here into a more participatory medium. Right now there is little or no way for funders to provide input. As 3-D scanning becomes common and new formats for opinion and data gathering emerge I think folks will generally be offered more than group-fantasy-inclusion. I can imagine TV shows, movies, and such incorporating virtual versions of funders into background scenes, and have tiers of how forgrounded they can become in a scene based on how much money they give. Right now there are companies that are inserting advertising into syndicated sitcoms and dramas by mapping them onto billboards, posters, etc. As this tech is developed further they could add virtual actors to scenes. Heck, I can do it in a rudimentary way in After Effects right now.

For products like this awkward-to-pronounce game console there could be ways of gathering opinions, and forgrounding the highest funders' opinions, including them in updates and even brainstorming sessions. I work on an MMO currently in Beta and so we are constantly interacting with beta players and considering their input. I could see a system in Kickstarter where those who shell out the most have the bigger influence in the direction of the product.

I'm still waiting on my Pen Type-A and, honestly, a bit sad that it turned out to be a considerable disappointment.

@Dakota - the first rule of running a Kickstarter is that most of your money will come from friends and family. Going viral is the exception - for most people, at least 80% of their revenue is from people they know personally.

As with all ventures, there's a bias of reporting on the successes. Perhaps this will even out when hear about the first overfunded projects that fail spectacularly.

"I funded it because it's so focused on indie games. For MS, Sony, and Nintendo, we are like an unimportant side thing, to be forever overshadowed by the likes of Gears of War and Tomb Raider."

that's because for them you *are* an unimportant side thing, to be forever overshadowed by the likes of Gears of War and Tomb Raider. it's not their business to care about artistic merit; it's their business to drive products to the retail channel and make their money on licensing fees.

the only reason OUYA seems to care any more about you is because they know that console indies are their equivalent of AAA titles, and the breathless yet vague quotes from indie luminaries on their Kickstarter page should be all the evidence you need of that fact.

I've been doing the same thing on Amazon lately. I see a book that looks interesting and buy it (1-click, straight to the kindle). I don't actually have any time to read, but I love the idea of reading and there's always the chance I'll get to it some day...

Will Hankinson on July 10, 2012 10:04 PM

I like the way that you characterize Kickstarter project funding as buying 'fantasies'. I like to think of it as buying 'identities'. Ownership/consumption seems to play a greater role in the construction of a coherent self, then merely intellectual assimilation of a new form or idea (aesthetics?). Kickstarter is also a beautiful example of the centering of the consumer identity around the transaction event.

No harm yet, but as with all consumption fantasies, frustration ensues when this purchased identity doesn't match up with empirically observed social reality.

The most worrying thing about Ouya is their lack of market research and vision of their own project. They say right in their own reward section, "we are figuring out how many we can make!"

Sounds like they arent even sure of what their market is going to be. Sure they have already sold almost 20,000 units. But if all these games are going to be based off a free-to-play w/premium items strategy, how many developers are we actually going to see invest in this?

Say they sell a lot more then the 80,000 then are going to make. Even at 250,000 units sold, there is very little financial opportunity for developers - and since even most indie developers make their living off of their small games, money will end up being the deciding factor, even if thats not what their "revolutionary" pitch video wants you to believe in.


Also, if this is an android based system, yet the marketplace only allows free-to-play games, then how exactly is this going to interact with other android platforms.

Im a hypothetical developer, making a hypothetical new game for Android. I would love to put it on Google Play so people can buy it on their Droids and Nexus' and Samsung Tablets. But I also heard of this console called "Ouya" which I would love to put it on. Problem is, I want to make money from this so I dont end up on the street, so how do I charge for the game on Google Play, but then make it free on Ouya without damaging my own sales or making customers angry, or without being forced to re-engineer the gameplay in a significant way for each platform?

Will they just end up making all the games free with ads, and then you can pay a few dollars to get rid of the ads? How ironic if you were to end up playing a game on your new fight-the-man Ouya system, only to see ads for the very AAA games you are protesting.

Also, Ian you make a great great point in your opening. "...But it's really just an Android device with yet another 30%-take uncurated app store with free-to-play games strapped to a TV." There is no difference between this device and any other device that cant get Google Play-compatibility.

Thanks for this excellent piece, that dosent fall into the reactionary thinking of everyone else. Even though I mainly addressed the idea of the Ouya, I agree with the rest of your thoughts. I have definitely backed project on Kickstarter just for the personal satisfaction of supporting an idea I like, with the actual product being an afterthought.

I think you're spot on Ian. I'd even take it further and suggest that kick starter funding, especially for high profile projects, is sub cultural. Like a modern day tagging for nerds, it allows (for instance) gamers to participate in a shared experience. I mean no disrespect when I say this (I'm a huge fan of Tim's) but I have to wonder how many of Tim Schafer's backers have actually played one of his games? Certainly brutal legend was considered a somewhat commercial failure (as far as I can tell), and the same can be said for other games like psychonauts and grim fandango, so why the sudden interest? I guess I'm getting sidetracked there, but my point is these projects seem less like a demand for specific products and more like a vote for gamer culture.

Ian Uniacke on July 11, 2012 6:47 PM

Marketeers and advertisers everywhere know this already; that for many people the act of spending money is -in itself- a pleasure.

What proclaiming the love of Kickstarter as "buying an idea"; regardles sof the materiality / utility of product does is highlight just how habitual consumer captialism is. Both kickstarters and strip malls are shops of dreams, not things.

Does anyone know if there is a completion rate for Kickstarter projects available?

I would be interested in knowing how many were completed and of those completed, how many were well received by customers/sponsors.

Sorry, dude. It's really being printed. I swear. And M wants all the crap outta the house, so there's that extra bit of motivation. I'll let you know when to check your mailboxes!

Love

Julian

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