Thought Bubble: Kickstarter’s Peter Molyneux Problem

When it comes to headlines, nobody does more with less than Peter Molyneux. He gets more attention when he doesn’t make a game than when he does.

Case in point: the Fable creator is once again the topic of conversation after his latest project Godus failed to deliver on promises made prior to development. The game that was originally supposed to be a major multiplayer PC release is currently a free-to-play mobile app, and the prospects for the full game are looking grim. Molyneux has moved on to something called The Trial, leaving newcomer Konrad Naszynski to clean up the mess he’s leaving in his wake.

If the story sounds familiar, it’s not the first time that Molyneux has failed to meet lofty expectations. From Fable to Milo, Molyneux has repeatedly promised the stars before making a rocket that barely made it out of the upper atmosphere. His career arc is basically Apollo 13, following an ambitious trajectory that never quite knows how to land.

godus-river

Despite those failures, Molyneux has always enjoyed a high degree of goodwill, largely because he seems so affable and genuine. He comes across as the most enthusiastic drinker of his own Kool-Aid, a man who boasts because he thinks he can do everything until he discovers that his dreams are still tethered by gravity. I can’t help thinking that he means well even as he clumsily tries to dig his way out of a bad situation with hypocrisy and contradictions.

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And make no mistake. Godus is a bad situation, with troubling twists in a tired tale. While prior projects were made for Microsoft, Godus was crowdfunded via Kickstarter. A multibillion-dollar corporation is used to taking risks on an auteur like Molyneux, but when you’re squandering the money of your most loyal fans, you’re also torching any semblance of trust with your target audience.

As tempting as it is to treat it as a case of Molyneux being Molyneux, that seems to be what he’s doing here. Speaking to Tech Radar about Kickstarter, Molyneux said:

“There’s this overwhelming urge to over-promise because it’s such a harsh rule: if you’re one penny short of your target you don’t get it. And of course in this instance, the behaviour which is incredibly destructive, which is ‘Christ, we’ve only got ten days to go and we’ve got to make a hundred thousand, for f**ks sake lets just say anything’.”

In other words, Molyneux acknowledges that he would (and did) say anything to reach the Kickstarter threshold, which is as close as we’re likely to get to an admission of deceit. Despite his history of misleading statements, he was still able to capitalize on his reputation in order to generate income. If someone as beloved as Molyneux can take the money and run, why would anybody bother to fork over anything to an unproven developer on Kickstarter? The crowdfunding relationship is based on trust, and Molyneux’s actions represent one of the most flagrant violations in the short history of the platform.

I don’t wish to absolve Molyneux, who has done everything to earn the current reckoning. The fallout has already engulfed Naszynski and Bryan Henderson, the Curiosity contest winner who will likely never receive the windfall that was promised. Under no circumstances would I trust Molyneux with my own money, nor would I make any plans based on his performance schedule. The more we learn, the worse it looks for the man responsible.

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And yet, I still can’t cast him as the villain. Molyneux did exactly what he’s always done, and while you could make the case that he (or we) should have known better, we didn’t learn anything about him that we didn’t already know. I hope he’ll think twice before soliciting his fans for money, but other than that I don’t begrudge the man his opportunities. Kickstarter is always a risk for backers.

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Besides, focusing too much on Molyneux’s shortcomings would mask the more noteworthy talking point. While his comments to Tech Radar are damning, they also happen to be completely accurate. The all-or-nothing Kickstarter model encourages developers to make statements that they won’t be able to back up, and that has to be addressed if crowdfunding is going to have long-term viability.

That’s why Godus should be a referendum on Kickstarter as much as it is on Molyneux. If anything, the fiasco feels like synchronicity, as if Kickstarter and Molyneux were fated to expose each other’s flaws. A man that makes impossible promises found a platform built on false ones, each exacerbating the worst tendencies of the other.

Crowdfunding is a valuable tool for people outside the mainstream and I’d like to see it continue. But we could probably stand to do without the high stakes offered on Kickstarter, which often feels more like a casino game than a business model. Like the lottery, the prize is often more appealing in concept than in practice, a system designed to leave most people disappointed.

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That strikes me as unnecessary given the increasing prevalence of smaller-scale alternatives like Patreon and Indiegogo, both of which allow more flexible forms of funding that support creators even if the campaign falls short of its stated funding goals. I recently interviewed the developers of Mouffe shortly before they launched an Indiegogo campaign to make a more portable version of their installation, and they were refreshingly up front about the fact that they weren’t offering much in the way of a commercial release.

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I’m guessing that’s not a coincidence. The team didn’t need to oversell the project to beat an arbitrary funding deadline, and that honesty likely played a role in their rapid success. There are plenty of backers willing to support those kinds of projects as long as they can make an informed decision with reasonable expectations.

That seems like a healthier and more sustainable approach to crowdfunding, where you can never be entirely sure what you’ll receive eighteen months down the line. In many cases it’s foolish to expect creators to accurately look that far ahead when asking for the public’s money. Godus merely highlights the dangers of pressurizing what should be a more gradual, less absolute form of financial planning, instead prioritizing the now over the later in a way that incentivizes deception rather than truth.

Molyneux deserves criticism for taking advantage of that, but he’s a symptom as much as a cause. That’s also why he’s ideally positioned to diagnose the problem. Crowdfunding is a powerful model, but it should be the start of a conversation rather than the finish line and it’s past time we learned that lesson.

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