Thanks to Veronica Mars, TV fanaticism is about to get really expensive.
We've all heard the news: creative figure responsible for a series with cult followings starts Kickstarter for a project and it gets the project funded in 24 hours, smashing previous funding records thanks to rabid fans. Such is the story for the Veronica Mars film, but this story and its impact has a connection to the way that the video game industry's business model has paid.
In particular, they've found ways to make lots of money from those most dedicated to their products, and it's looking like dedicated fans of TV shows both past and present are going to get the 'opportunity' to show their support by spending lots and lots of money.
There is a very clear gaming analogue to the Veronica Mars film, and it's Double Fine Adventure. It was a Kickstarter project started by Double Fine Productions and Tim Schafer, a man known in gaming circles for his work on adventure games like the Monkey Island series, Grim Fandango (a game whose reputation far exceeded its sales), and more. He was one of the first big names to take advantage of Kickstarter to try and get an original project funded, and the studio got their $400,000 in a day, before finishing with over $3.3 million.
Since then, anyone with a well-known name and/or a good enough idea has seemingly put out a Kickstarter project and while Double Fine totals are not quite the norm, their record has been broken by several other projects, but other well-known names in gaming have had successful projects that revive games from the past, including space sim Elite, a sequel to the 1988 post-apocalyptic RPG Wasteland, and two different Shadowrun games.
Author Neal Stephenson got a glorified tech demo for a swordfighting game funded! One game, Star Command, pulled an Xzibit and crowdfunded their game...then crowdfunded it again to a much higher dollar figure when they needed more money. If it's familiar or intriguing, and there's some weight behind the project, then that's the secret to Kickstarter success.
As well, the Veronica Mars Kickstarter has succeeded because the project has 'allowed' fans to not just put in a glorified pre-order for the film when it releases, they're paying for the privilege of its very existence, an intangible thing that can convince someone that $35 for a digital download is worth it. People will open their wallets for something that they really, really want, especially if it's the only way that they can get it. That intangibility is the secret to making a lot of money, and that's another thing that games have figured out.
This is something too that the gaming industry is swiftly learning. Case in point, look at your smartphone. Notice how more and more games are free downloads, but start to encourage spending money in the game itself on virtual money or Smurfberries? That's because what a lot of developers are figuring out is that people will spend a lot more money on a game once they're in it, in part because now the purchases are just competing with themselves rather than hundreds of thousands of other games in their own economy, but also because now they've enabled players to spend unlimited amounts of money.
They're not buying additional content, they're buying intangible things like in-game currency to help improve their performance and experience. It’s not even that a lot of people are actually spending money in these apps to make money - the gaming market shifts rapidly, and so figuring out what exactly the average conversion rate from free users to paid ones is, but .5 to 6% is quoted as the average, a mega-popular game like Temple Run has been known to do 1%, and some developers see as low as .1% if their game doesn’t ‘monetize’ well. But those users who do pay? They’re spending a lot of money on their purchases, far more than they would if they just bought the app straight out.
So think about this in the context of TV fandom. In the past, hardcore fans have had little to no way to support their favorite shows and creators. TV ratings only count those with Nielsen boxes, measuring viewers and setting ad rates. Unless you have a Nielsen box, you're pretty much invisible, and if you're not 18-49 you might as well just have never existed. The outlet that fans do have for voting with their wallets is primarily through buying TV shows online and on DVD, yet the impact of that is a drop in the bucket, not enough to make any kind of tangible difference between a show's life and death.
Now consider this: fans have only been able to spend finite amounts on their favorite shows. What the Veronica Mars Kickstarter success shows is that if you give fans the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money while providing an intangible satisfaction along with the tangible rewards for their financial support, they will ask you to shut up and take their money. Hollywood has yet to exploit this because they're stuck in the old models. Change is bad, and change is scary for Hollywood. This has an analogue in the video game market as well: the profitability is increasingly coming from new platforms that are open to new business models, where the console side of things in particular is suffering due to decreased interest in games that cost $60 upfront, even if they're starting to sell more secondary purchases. But the new business models are spreading further and further, and I see no reason why Hollywood won't do the same.
For Hollywood, it might represent a very profitable endeavor too: if the fans put up the financial risk for projects, they could certainly engender good will and maybe even make pure profit off of any additional money from something like the Veronica Mars movie, like people who just want to buy the DVD or digital download after it releases, or go to see it in a limited theater engagement. Theoretically, Warner Bros. could be making both profit and dedicated fans happy, goals that have previously seemed mutually exclusive thanks to established business models.
Will this mean the end of ad-supported TV programming? Probably not, just as those free games often still have advertisements even if they’re pulling in millions. You still gotta make money off of the masses, any pennies you can. But what is now obvious is that dedicated fans have proven that they have disposable income and will dispose of large quantities of it.
The floodgates are open, contrary to what Joss Whedon has said. Everyone with a canceled TV show and a cult fanbase is at least thinking about the possibilities. The cast and crew of Terriersjoked about shooting a movie on their iPhones, which isn't far from plausibility considering that if it's good enough for an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, it's probably good enough for Hank and Britt. And if the studios can now authorize these projects at little to no risk, why not?
Plus, the possibilities for doing things like what some developers do with crowdfunding, where the project's existence doesn't hang in the balance but serves to enhance it, could certainly exist with things like DVDs/bonus features, meet 'n greet opportunities, and any other number of fan-focused ways to pry a lot of extra money out of fans' wallets. At worst, it's a way to get plenty of cheap PR.
It's easy to be cynical about this, and it's inevitable in many cases - the rise of in-app purchases and crowdfunding in the gaming market has certainly had its share of cynics, and people that claim a moral high ground in avoiding these tactics and still doing things the old way. And some are still succeeding with this, but those that are taking advantage of new tactics to make money are often the ones succeeding to the greatest degree.
And if you think this isn't important, I want to remind you that the creator of a low-rated TV show that last aired an episode 6 years ago just got its fans to shell out over $2 million in a day. Money talks, Veronica Mars isn't the only pent-up fanbase desperately wanting more. It's an inevitability, so get your credit card ready. You might see more of your favorite shows, even the dead ones, but it’ll cost you. And you have video games to thank for it.
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