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Kickstarting Apps

I have a tiny Kickstarter problem, but I mostly manage to resist. Earlier this year my excitement for backing video games overwhelmed me a bit, as you can see. I’m excited especially for The Banner Saga, but like any preorder, I’m out money now for something I won’t have for a year.

As you may know, I am also a big fan of the 5by5 podcast network, including the show Build & Analyze with Marco Arment. A few months ago, I wrote in to the show with this question:

I’m wondering if you’d talk about the recent large-scale Kickstarter video game projects, such as Double Fine Adventure, Wasteland 2, and Banner Saga. Do you think this would be a way fund non-game apps?

Marco and Dan answered this in Episode #70, 116 Degree Burns, starting at the 23:35 mark, right after the first sponsor, and going to about 34:25. I meant to follow-up a while ago, but the end of the semester was a busy time, so here goes.

My interpretation of Marco’s overall point was that software, especially complex apps like a game, is too risky to back. This is because it’s near impossible to estimate the total amount of development time, and therefore the cost, so the project can’t set a reasonable goal or backer rewards.

As a fellow software engineer, I totally understand this difficulty, but Marco’s take was definitely a downer for me. I think I wanted him to agree with my thinking, which is that Kickstarter could be an alternative source of funding for app creators, basically a way to gauge market interest before doing anything more than preliminary planning and development. I think Marco goes too far in claiming that Kickstarter possibly shouldn’t allow these projects because of that risk.

As an aside, there is some irony in one of the first high-profile app Kickstarter projects, Dark Sky, being an occasional sponsor on 5by5.

Kickstarter has a good stats page, but it just shows the breakdown of successful vs. unsuccessful funding; it doesn’t show how successful projects are at completion and wisely using their funding, which is at the core of Marco’s argument. At a glance,  I have seen a few updates from some of the projects I’ve backed that the project team didn’t accurately predict the cost and effort of putting together (and in some cases, shipping) backer rewards. I do note that Games as a category are on the higher end of the money range, but the lower end of the success rate, which probably bears out Marco’s point about risk.

That all said, I think Kickstarter has a very important role for the future of “the useful arts”. The content industry in particular is in the process of a major upheaval, so it’s not clear how someone with a good idea that doesn’t fit into the usual day job archetype can get the money they need upfront in order to take the time to create. Backers can in that sense collectively fill the role of Renaissance patrons.

Apps are in a bit different category, in no small part because the skills necessary to create an app are economically valued in the traditional employment market. Maybe some of my interest in the idea is that, while I love my job, I envy some aspects of Marco’s lifestyle as an independent app developer. (It doesn’t help that we’re within a few months of the same age.) I suppose then a subtext of my question was wondering if this is a feasible way to start working in this space.

What do you think?

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Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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