Dice and D-Pads: Funding Fun

By Robyn Fleming

Now and then, when I'm complaining about a game being sexist or racist or something, someone will suggest that if I'm that interested in getting better games out there, I should make my own. This always kind of makes me giggle. I'm pretty sure that when people say this, they don't really mean it. They're not genuinely interested in seeing what kind of game I would make—they just want me to shut up. A more generous interpretation is that maybe they're trying to suggest that my talking about problems is not constructive, and that if I really want change I should "do" something, but either way, what makes me laugh is thinking about me, of all people, making games.

I'll let you in on the joke: I'm actually a pretty terrible gamer.

I like games, and I certainly play them a lot (if "a lot" is understood to mean "constantly"). But you don't want me on your team for any sort of co-op. I wouldn't even recommend playing against me, most of the time. I'm the kind of opponent who is so painfully bad at something that a victory against me loses all its savor.

I'm probably worst at first-person shooters, which I find horribly disorienting. I waste a lot of time spinning in circles and getting trapped in corners, even without the pressure of enemy fire. I do usually stop revolving once I manage to thrash my way out into combat, but that's only because I start bouncing up and down in place, instead, as I fail repeatedly to take cover.

I haven't been too interested in the vast majority of FPS titles, so my complete uselessness never really bothered me. I just didn't play those titles on my own, and if I was hanging out with friends who wanted to do some gaming, I could suffer through a few embarrassing rounds of TimeSplitters, biding time until they got disgusted enough to switch to Tekken or something. (I'm not what anyone would call "good" at fighting games either, but I enjoy button-mashing much more than walking into walls.)

But when Mass Effect came out I was inspired to really put some time and effort into mastering the controls of an FPS. To no avail. Even after years of playing that franchise, I spin, get trapped in corners, fail at taking cover, and once even managed to impale my ground vehicle on a gun turret. Amazing, right? And lest you think that it's just general inexperience combined disastrously with one particular FPS-style franchise that's tripping me up, I might as well admit that—despite repeated attempts—I've never played all the way through Elebits. Yes, the very child-friendly and adorable 2006 Wii title. I can just about manage the first several levels, but as soon as the elebits start fighting back, I am overwhelmed.

I'm less outrageously bad at other kinds of video and computer games, but a general pattern of ineptitude prevails across most genres. I used to be sort of famous on the MUD I played as a teenager for being so slow to level that the administrators eventually promoted me to godhood so they wouldn't have to watch me flailing around anymore.

I do better in general with tabletop games, where at least I don't have to fumble with a controller or keyboard, but . . . well, let me just say I prefer to be the game master instead of a player not because of a desire for power or control, or a need to have my retired characters showing up as bartenders in new campaigns, but rather because if I'm the one running the game, I can take as long as I need to look up rules and figure out what the heck I'm doing while I'm planning each session, instead of slowing everyone else down during play. I think my gaming groups appreciate my world-building and flair for storytelling as GM—but I know that people who've played with me as a member of the adventuring party find my inability to remember game mechanics without a cheat sheet frustrating.

I don't completely suck at every kind of game—show me a puzzle game and I'll show you a high score, baby—but my point here is that I only just barely have the skillz needed to be much of a gamer at all. Creating a game would take a lot more than that. I can come up with campaigns for my Dungeons & Dragons players, sure, but I don't have the skill-set to design an actual system of tabletop play. All of the programming, art design, music, and more that go into a video or computer game are right out. I suppose I probably could manage to write a script for a game, or flavor text for a manual, if someone else was doing all of the other work, but all of my experience in writing to date has been in short stories, novels, and columns like this one, which is kind of not the same thing. No, me making a game is not a good idea.

Luckily for me—and, frankly, for all of you—I don't actually think I have to be making them myself in order to contribute in a positive and constructive way to gaming at large. I actually happen to believe that talking about games is doing something, but even if I didn't, I have other options. For example, helping other people to make their games.

For me and others as inept as myself, there's always the good old "vote with your wallet" option. I can support games I like by buying them, and encouraging others to do the same. That's a great way to promote a good game that already exists, but voting with your wallet before a game is on the market can be even more helpful. And with the increasing popularity of crowdfunding, you don't even have to have investor-level funds at your disposal to do it. Via a site like Kickstarter, you can help sponsor the development of a game for as little as a dollar. If you have a little bit more available to spend, you can usually do the equivalent of pre-ordering the game, since creators tend to offer the finished product as a reward to backers near the same price point where it will eventually be sold. And if you've got more cash than that, you can often get some pretty neat rewards (your name in the credits, signed copies of the finished product, and limited editions with extra material are some I've seen offered) along with the satisfaction of helping a game you really want to see on the market.

And your investment can be quite low in risk, as well as affordable, because most crowdfunding sites operate on an all-or-nothing approach to funding, meaning that if the project you want to sponsor doesn't meet its funding goal, you won't be charged at all. So as long as the potential creators have estimated the funds they'll need correctly, they'll be all set to start work as soon as the project is funded, and they should be able to deliver the rewards they've promised to their backers.

Notice that I said things like "as long as" and "should," though. Crowdfunding is awesome, and it creates a lot of great opportunities, but things don't always go perfectly. Lots of projects never get fully funded, of course, which can be a bummer, but even when they do, there's no guarantee that an investor will receive the reward they signed on for, or that a game will live up to all the promises the creator made—or even that it will be completed at all. Still, if you don't mind a little risk, crowdfunding does make it possible for almost anyone to help bankroll a game's creation, which I think is pretty cool, and definitely a better way for someone like me to get awesome things on the market than by trying to make them myself.

Of course, just as anyone can be a backer, anyone can set themselves up as a potential creator. Even—gasp!—someone as unqualified as I am. One good way to reduce what risk there is in participating in crowdfunding is definitely to look over the credentials of the people behind any project you're considering sponsoring. Check out the information they've provided about themselves, which should include their qualifications and any applicable experience, and evaluate whether you think the promises they're making seem reasonable. The most recent crowdfunded project I contributed to was being proposed by a couple of people who each had multiple titles under their belts in genres similar to the game they were planning to make. I've chipped in on projects with less-experienced people behind them too, though, and I haven't regretted it yet. Being able to risk a relatively small amount of money definitely helps me feel more confident about it all.

There are other things to consider before you commit to supporting a crowdfunded game, beyond the résumés of the prospective creators. You'll want to carefully evaluate all of the information they provide about their project, and assess any preview materials. You should also keep in mind that not all of the money you donate is going to go to the game. The site hosting the fund-raising will take a cut, and so will the company handling the transfer of money (in Kickstarter's case, that means that some portion of your payment ends up supporting Amazon.com). But it doesn't take long to weigh all the data, and when you're done you either get to keep all your money, or support a worthy product, so that's pretty cool.

Certainly much cooler than suffering through any game I could design.


Robyn Fleming started playing D&D when she was six, and, many years later, met her husband through a MUD. When not gaming, she teaches martial arts, and writes speculative romance under a pseudonym. Basically, she's a huge geek.

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