Limited Theory – The Failure of Kickstarter

RIP Limit Theory and crowd funding.

Limit Theory is dead. Anybody who has been following it recently would know that it was never, ever going to come out. I say this as somebody who backed the game – something I rarely do. In fact, there’s only one Kickstarter I’ve ever backed that offered some kind of return – Planetary Annihilation. Everything else either died, or was a colossal disappointment.

For those who didn’t know, Limit Theory was a procedually generated space game similar to Freelancer, developed by Josh Parnell. Originally slated for release in 2014, Parnell got over $180,000 to develop the game. Ordinarily, a single person promising to deliver such an ambitious game is a colossal red flag – an absolute danger sign. Entire teams of developers have failed to deliver something so ambitious. But Parnell seemed to have the technical skill to develop said title – the initial developer updates were promising. He seemed to have the capacity to actually deliver something close to what was promised. I don’t think any Kickstarter ever lives up to its original premise – at least in gaming – but it seemed like Parnell would deliver something around what he promised. He wouldn’t have a hope in hell of delivering it on time – but I thought he would deliver something.

But he didn’t – Limit Theory ultimately died because it was too ambitious, and even with some assistance, Parnell couldn’t deliver. Four years beyond his initial ‘expected delivery’, the project has ended. Limit Theory joins the other games in the graveyard of Kickstarters that went nowhere.

Why did we love Kickstarter?

It seems like just yesterday when Kickstarter appeared. It’s been around since 2009, but around 2012 and 2013 is when it really started to gather steam, with big projects like Double Fine Adventure, Star Citizen, Maia, and other assorted projects started to appear. The premise was intriguing – give the developers money directly, so that they could make the game they wanted without any interference from big publishers. The promise seemed to be that we could make games great again by simply bypassing the publisher and taking money directly from fans who wanted to see new games birthed.

To be fair, up until that point, publishers had been doing some pretty awful things. Electronic Arts in particular was butchering things left, right and centre. Plenty of promising titles were killed off or were dramatically reduced in scope. Of course it had to be the publisher’s fault – I mean, who knew the titles better than the developers? If they’d just had a few more months, they would have delivered a much better product, without all the bugs. If the publishers weren’t so greedy for a release timeframe, the game would have been so much better… or so we thought.

Kickstarter took off with massive success for many big name projects – often exceeding their ‘asking budget’, which was fairly modest. Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure raked in the cash with nothing more than a generic “We’ll make a game!” pitch – people threw money at them without a second thought, simply because it was Schafer’s name attached to the project. Highly ambitious games, like Limit Theory, were also highly popular – promise what people were yearning for, regardless of the capacity to deliver, and chances are people would buy in. And if you didn’t have a big name in the industry, or you didn’t have a novel idea, just buy into a big YouTube sensation, like Yogventures! Can’t go wrong, right?

The terrible truth is…

…developers are actually pretty bad at sticking to timeframes. Publishers, for all of the horrible limits they impose, tend to keep development on track. When development starts to go off track, they can either guide it back (usually with force), or they can inject extra money into it to keep it afloat (if the pay-off is worth it). When publishers are too heavy handed, we end up with broken games. When they’re too liberal, we end up with Duke Nukem Forever. The days of independent 90s developers releasing massive games like Doom are more or less over – outside of the small-title indie sector, at least.

Kickstarter has revealed the horrible truth that most developers can’t deliver on their original vision – whether it’s because it was too ambitious, they lacked the talent to make it reality, or they’re simply bad at managing such a project. The problem with Kickstarter is that in order to get the money needed to fund development, developers have to market the shit out of their pitch. While publishers can look at it and go “What the fuck, there’s no way you’ll pull this off” and walk away, gamers in general are suckered in by hype and promises. We’re way more willing to throw $25 at a project en-mass if it’s a big name and a stunning premise.

There’s loads of problems with this model though.

Developers ask for small amounts to get funded. Limit Theory needed way more than $180,000 to make. Nobody works for free. If Parnell had any intention of delivering in 2014, he’d have to have worked full time on Limit Theory – and that means money to actually survive, not just to buy things for development. The same applies to pretty much every other Kickstarter, unless it’s a pet project which often have no delivery date. Asking for a more realistic amount encourages questions like “OMG y do u need so mch cuz dis other 1 only neds lyk half dat amt lol?” People generally don’t understand the costs of development – and a Kickstarter with a massive funding amount also runs the risk of not getting funded at all. It’s better to have $100,000 rather than the realistic $300,000, right?

Developers are selling a pitch, not what can be delivered. Read any Kickstarter and you’ll see it’s basically people promising that their game will be the Game to End All Games. There’s nothing it can’t do according to the developer. Read the Risks section – it’s usually basic stuff like “Okay yeah I guess I might fail, but I won’t because I’m really good, so it’s probably not going to happen. But it might, I guess?” The risks of failure are always downplayed – because they’re ultimately desperately trying to get you to throw money at the screen. They don’t want you to dwell on the fact that they probably can’t deliver what they’re promising within any reasonable time-frame. You don’t make money by telling people that if you back them, their money will likely disappear into a failed project with nothing to show for it.

Reward tiers encourage irrational pledges. Limit Theory had a ridiculous number of backer tiers. Eight people threw over $1000 USD each at the project to become part of the ‘Elder Council’ to have regular interactions with Parnell along with a large number of other random items, like posters, t-shirts, books, and in-game rewards. Kickstarters pile on all these absurd reward tiers to encourage people to spend way more money on the project – money they otherwise wouldn’t have spent based on the premise of the game alone. This all helps to distract them from the suggestion that the game couldn’t possibly be delivered, while putting more money into the developer’s pocket. The more absurd the rewards, the more absurd the project.

Stretch goals demonstrate poor planning. Stretch goals are complete garbage. If there was any way to deliver stretch goals, they would have been part of the original plan anyway. Holding features hostage by saying “If we don’t reach $100,000 then you won’t have [some desired feature]!” is ridiculous. It makes literally no sense in most cases, because the ‘stretch goals’ are small increments that don’t often reflect the fact that they require either time to produce (with money not equivalent to the time), or that the goal is so trivial to implement that the monetary stretch goal value is totally irrelevant. But you gotta get those stretch goals in!

Backers are basically big donations – but the developer needs to hide this from you. The developer owes you practically nothing (physical rewards sometimes excluded). If you throw $25 USD at Limit Theory and it dies (as it did), they don’t owe you a damn thing. If a project collects the cash and then disappears, then there’s no legal recourse for you at this point. You are effectively donating money to the developer in the hope that it might turn into something you want. If it never releases, if the developer never so much as drops a post on Kickstarter, your money is gone and you aren’t getting it back. This is the biggest risk of Kickstarter, and there’s nothing you can do to fix it. Everyone needs to remember this before giving them money – but the developer will try to distract you from this with their pitch. They do that by downplaying the risks, talking up their capability, and making additional promises to try to lend legitimacy to their claims. There’s no contract for them to update you on their progress, or to deliver anything at all.

Basically, Kickstarter is one massive advertising platform, asking for donations. There’s absolutely nothing else to it. Developers don’t submit detailed plans for how they will achieve a project, how much it’ll realistically cost, or any timeframes for milestones. It’s all generic marketing wank – because otherwise people won’t throw money at them – and that’s all they’re interested in. It’s a place for people to promise the world without any real consequence for failure except for a tarnished name (which they probably don’t care about). Kickstarter ultimately exposes the fact that most developers are actually bad at delivering things on time, on budget, and with realistic time frames.

Kickstarter represents a blend of new developers who have no idea how to manage a project, and the worst of the indie/ex-AAA developers who also have no idea how to manage a project when given large sums of money. I wouldn’t go so far as it call it predatory, but it’s definitely not entirely honest either. The pinnacle of this would be Tim Schafer and Double Fine – for years publishers were blamed for the commercial failure of Schafer’s games, but with the absurd mess their Kickstarter ended up in, it’s clear that the weak link isn’t the evil publishers, but rather Schafer and his team. Parnell promised the world and downplayed the risks several times – “At the risk of sounding ludicrous, my claim to you is that building Limit Theory is easy.”

Here’s the terrible truth – most games need good management in order to deliver. Some people are good at it – but the visionaries in the industry (whether AAA, indie, or bedroom developer) typically don’t possess that skill. We see this time and time again as projects become ever more complicated. I don’t claim to have massive insight into game development – I’ve done a few projects for my own enjoyment, and none of them ever stuck to the timeframes and milestones I set for myself, because game development is actually really hard. But I do know a little bit about managing projects, and as much as people like to disparage that role, it actually is a skill and it’s hard to balance expectations with creative output. Sometimes that means features get cut. Sometimes that means the original vision gets compromised. Sometimes that means injecting more cash – and the number of Kickstarters that subsequently went to Early Access/Steam Greenlight, or had second Kickstarters, or third party investment, should attest to the fact that many of them were underfunded from the beginning.

Stop Kickstarters, Stop Early Access, Stop Preorders.

Kickstarters, Early Access, and Preorders are closely linked – with varying degrees of delivery. Kickstarter has the most risk – you might get nothing. Preorders only offer the risk of disappointment – you might not like what you get. Early Access is another awful idea that usually offers people broken betas that might never coalesce into the game they were advertised – but at least you’re getting something with slightly more accountability, I guess.

All three are bad ideas. Kickstarters are glorified advertising campaigns and there’s no reason to throw money at them – at least until developers start to become more honest. Early Access is a bit hit and miss but by and large if the developer has little to show for it, they’re typically a bad buy-in for most people. Preorders? Just stop pre-ordering, because it’s driving the industry to do stupid shit like bundling garbage with them. Unless you know you’ll like it and there’s a tangible benefit (like a reduced price), don’t put down cash until after the user opinions roll in. Of course if you really want to put money on a Kickstarter or an Early Access title it’s your choice – but I think that for most people, they’re a bad way to burn money. You bear all of the risk – small though it may be to your wallet. If you are going to back them, don’t fall into the trap of paying for higher tiers. It’s not worth it.

And I’m not here to take a dump on Josh Parnell. To be fair, Parnell had a rough, rocky road to failure – and he absolutely did try his best. The poor dude had several ups and downs, both for development and personally, which dramatically affected his capacity to deliver. In the early days he was highly communicative. He did his best and we can’t really ask too much more from him. I don’t want to disparage his efforts in the slightest. It takes serious balls to start a project like this. This was an ambitious project from the start, which got away from him quickly. As the dev logs went on it was clear he was struggling.

But Limit Theory, much like the bullshit that Schafer peddles, suffers from many of the problems endemic to Kickstarter. Parnell’s pitch was the same sort of advertising that infects every other Kickstarter. He downplayed the risks (he basically doesn’t mention them except in the first line), he promised a time frame he couldn’t possibly deliver on, added stretch goals that made no sense, and had an absurd number of backer tiers that were designed to extract as much money as possible. It’s the stereotypical over promise, never deliver Kickstarter project. Parnell definitely wasn’t malicious, nor do I believe he wanted to deliberately mislead people about the project – but there’s still that tone of borderline-dishonesty inherent to this kind of marketing. I can’t blame him – he’s pitching an idea to everyday people, and this shit works. But the failure is entirely on his shoulders.

It’s time for Kickstarter to die. I dare say it’s already started – it started around the time that Early Access on Steam became a thing (which is a can of worms all on its own). We just don’t hear about too many Kickstarter projects these days – the public in general have probably gone off them. Once the high-profile failures (whether outright or under-delivering) started to roll in, people realised that Kickstarter wasn’t the way to cut out the publishers and deliver unlimited power to developers. We realised that publishers weren’t the roadblock between developers and their awesome games. It turns out that sometimes it’s the developer that cocks it up – sometimes it’s the developer that makes mistakes. It’s hard to accept for anyone who grew up with PC gaming in the 1990s, when teams like id Software or 3D Realms/Apogee were doing things all on their own. But we also didn’t really have any expectations, there were no release dates, and everything was fresh and exciting. Times have changed. There’s thousands of games vying for attention. Nobody’s going to lament too many failed projects when there’s many others to play.

I wish the best of luck to Josh Parnell in any future endeavours, and I don’t regret backing Limit Theory, and don’t want a refund or any sort of compensation. I’m disappointed he didn’t deliver, but I’m also not surprised. He should be commended for chasing his dream.

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