In 1096, a small, grubby, angry man on a donkey led twenty thousand men and women – most of them half-armed peasants – over the Straits of Bosphorus into Anatolia. The angry man, Peter the Hermit, had led this rabble across Europe. He’d blagged transport across the Straits from the Emperor of Constantinople. He and his mob were the vanguard of the First Crusade.
‘Vanguard’ is another way of saying ‘they didn’t wait for the actual army’ – despite warnings from the Emperor and other wiser heads, who could plainly see what was going to happen. Twenty thousand half-starved peasants were about to take on the Seljuk Turks, the warrior dynasty which had conquered Persia, and that was never going to end well. Peter’s lot – the ‘People’s Crusade’ – did conquer a couple of cities, thanks to numbers and the element of surprise. Possibly the element of bewilderment. I can’t imagine what the Turks thought what this rabble of idiots was trying to achieve. In any case, the Seljuks got over their bewilderment soon enough, set up an ambush, and comprehensively kicked Crusader arse. A few thousand People’s Crusaders survived and fled back to Constantinople.
Peter survived too, of course, as his kind generally do. In fact he lived at least another twenty years. He’d won enough prestige that he served as a diplomat and adviser to the leaders of the First Crusade proper. He made it as far as Jerusalem before he went home. He lived out the rest of his life running a monastery in the Ardennes. It was a pretty good life.
Back to 2016. Last year, the University of Pennsylvania carried out a survey of Kickstarter backers. They found that 65 per cent of campaigns delivered their reward on time, and 9 per cent failed outright. These numbers sound familiar, and are pretty much what you’d expect.
What’s interesting to me is that they also found that 73 per cent of people who’d backed a failed project would back another project. Okay. People learn to play the odds. But get this: 19 per cent of backers who’d backed a failed project said they would back another project by the same creator.
This isn’t a hit piece about Kickstarter. Kickstarter is great. (Full disclosure: my company has run two Kickstarters, and two got funded and we delivered on both.) If it was a hit piece, I’d say ‘I blame the media’ or ‘people are stupid’. But let’s dig a little deeper; and let’s start by thinking about Peter.
Did Peter’s Crusaders believe him? Stop for a moment and imagine what it must have been like, in 1096. You’re a turnip farmer, you’re a cobbler, you’re a very minor knight who can’t afford a decent suit of armour. The grubby man on a donkey tells you you’re going to see foreign places, win indulgence for your sins, come back stacked with loot, if you go kill Turks, and you believe him. Why?
Apparently he was a fine speaker, but seriously. Your spouse is pointing out that someone is going to have to harvest the turnips, or your family will starve. Your sceptical friend is pointing out that the People’s Crusade doesn’t seem to have any food or money, that Jerusalem is a very long way away (it must be ten times as far as the next village!) and that Peter is riding a donkey. But you join the Crusade. Why?
Partly it’s social proof. If Peter just had his donkey, you probably wouldn’t follow him. But at some point fairly early on, he’d picked up enough hangers-on to look like a crowd. Once he was past that point, you weren’t just signing up with Peter; you were going with all those other guys, and they couldn’t all be wrong, could they?
Social proof is vital in Kickstarter, and indeed in traditional game development. Backers, or buzz, are legitimacy. There are approximately eleven gazillion game projects on Kickstarter that never get past a hundred dollars. These are the hobby projects from people who might get a back from their mum or their weird friend. You wouldn’t back those. No-one else does, and besides, they have that visible sketchy Kickstarter miasma of leaky basements and personal obsession. You back the projects with the glitz and the cool gifs, but also, preferably, with the thousand-plus backers.
But this raises the question of how a dev, or a mad hermit preacher, gets to that point. The answer, of course, is vision. Developers (and hermits) don’t sell games. They – we – sell promises. Those of us who are honest, competent and lucky provide a game that fulfils the promise. Those of us who are only two of those three things may struggle. Anyone who’s only honest or competent or lucky probably won’t deliver on the promise.
But the more thrilling the promise, the better that promise will sell; and, of course, a lot of people who make games are selling themselves and their team on the promise as well. By definition, a visionary creative director is pursuing a vision, and a vision is never of something that actually exists, right now.
Everyone lives in the future, as well as in the moment. If you pledge to a Kickstarter – if you pre-order a game – you’re probably enjoying the anticipation and the participation. If you never get the reward you were promised, you’ve had your moment in the dream. That’s not enough! You should still get what you paid for! But it’s a compensation of sorts. More to the point, it’s why people sign up.
Peter was selling Jerusalem, the City of the Great King. He was selling a life away from the turnips; he was selling the forgiveness of sins; he was selling glory and righteousness. What the turnip farmers were buying, of course, was hunger, confusion, and a useless death in a hot and distant place. But for a time between the purchase and the fulfilment, they were crusaders.
Was Peter a crook? Did he lead his ragged army across Europe in a spirit of cynicism, just so he could sit at the table with the crusader kings and drink monastery wine in the Ardennes two decades later? Of course not. But I don’t think he was an honest man either. He led tens of thousands of idiot innocents to their death, because he had a vision. He was responsible for those deaths, even if he also gave them something beautiful.
Not many Kickstarters are responsible for thousands of deaths, so far. Not many Kickstarter creators are crooks. But they’re all responsible for what they do; if you let them get away with it. If you want the dream and the feel of the future, that may be enough to part with your money. It really may be. Your call.