Been wanting to do a post like this for a while, after seeing one disastrous crowdfunding scheme after another, and the recent dashcon $17k fiasco is about the last straw. Even in a scenario where the people involved are earnest and telling the truth, kickstarters are full of inexperienced kids who have wildly underestimated how much work is required of them and quietly abandon their project six months later.
I know, I know, what y'all spend money on is your business, but let's throw cash at things that have some hope of coming to fruition, huh?
Here's some basic tips on how to avoid bad kickstarters:
1. Does the crowdfunding page have ugly/amateurish graphic design?
Let's face it, design skills are easy to acquire. If Joe Gamedesigner cares enough about his indie title to want to ask money for it, he cares enough to make a professional-looking site, or at least to pay his art student friend to do it for him. This is marketing in a nutshell: If something looks bad, people won't buy it.
There are exceptions (the Minecraft website has always been pretty bare-bones) but this is one of many potential warning signs.
1a. Conversely, does the page have slick graphic design and nothing else?
As before, making something look professional is easy. Scammers will dazzle you with a video with pretty animations and nifty infographics, while the text is full of jargon and buzzwords and over-ambitious promises. More on that later.
There's also the possibility of the art assets being stolen, like The War Z showing unattributed images from The Walking Dead and some other zombie media. Google Image Search that shit.
Also, consider an alternate scenario where they aren't scammers, but the team is badly imbalanced. I've seen a couple of cases where it was reeeally obvious that everyone involved were artists/designers, and none of them knew how to program, handle PR, or manage funds. If all they've got is shiny concept art and nothing else, be suspicious.
2. Are their goals realistic?
If they're promising some amazing gadget that sounds too good to be true... have a scientist friend look at their claims. (By "scientist friend", I mean someone with an actual degree, not someone who made a post about Bill Nye that one time.) Current technology is pretty amazing, but we aren't THAT good yet.
Along with the constraints of physics, see how they plan to allocate their cash and manpower. Asking for too little money is as bad as asking for too much. One way to gauge whether they're on the level is to check how similar projects are managed. Fact: $50,000 is just about enough to pay for one game programmer or one animator's salary for a year, on average.
You might just be in this to get swag, which is fine, but you have to make sure these people are reliable. There's no point in that if they take months and years to mail out the backer rewards, if at all, because they're disorganized or overworked or didn't expect production costs to be so high.
3. What are they actually showing?
Most kickstarters will show a presentation video before the text. If the video is nothing but fluff, still images, and talking heads (eg. some dude in their bedroom with bad lighting, wittering on about Grand Plans), start to worry. If your video game doesn't at least have some usable gameplay footage, that's not good enough. See: the infamous Arkh Project 1-second walk cycle.
There's a reason why every E3 is so roundedly mocked: Because no matter what, it's all empty promises from people with a history of making empty promises, buzzwords, and pre-rendered footage (which means you're seeing short movies with nothing to do with how the game will play). The same criticisms apply here.
3a. Are they making sensationalist claims rather than factual ones?
This is important enough, IMO, to have its own bullet point. A lot of scams, online or otherwise, play on strong emotion. Usually it plays on greed -- look up the asphalt paving scam, where the scammer claims to be a contractor with leftover paving supplies they need to get rid of, and offer to pave their driveway for a lowered price, and the victim agrees because they think they'll save money. But other scams will play on the opposite of greed, banking on people wanting to feel good and generous and altruistic.
A more relevant case will be the kickstarter to send a 9 year old girl to "RPG camp", where the mother turned out to be a millionaire. I think most of us here are feminists who hate injustice and remember being baby geeks with big dreams, and it's awfully tempting to vicariously live those dreams through someone else, proving to some invisible person that girls CAN TOO make games. And I hope everyone remembers Kony2012, with that frankly insulting video that said "if a small cherubic child thinks this is wrong, SO SHOULD YOU. Also give us your dollars and you'll get a trendy rubber bracelet."
Look, a storybook should make you feel heroic. A business should make you feel like you're making a financially secure decision.
4. Does the development team have any experience in this field?
Do some Google searches on any names or company names mentioned. It might be a shell corporation (i.e. a company just created to make business transactions and then run away with the moolah). Sometimes the team might not even exist -- I recall a supposed dev team whose photos came from stock image sites. Seriously.
If the team is, in fact, real, see what other things they've done. I'm not asking for 10 years work experience, but for instance, if you're programming a game, you don't jump straight from "nothing" to "making an MMORPG from scratch". You make little games, experiments with different engines, play around with different approaches, that kind of thing. If they have nothing, or -- worse -- if their name leads back to a series of failed business endeavours, don't touch it. Could be a scam, could be serial overenthusiastic incompetence, both are bad.
5. How are they communicating with their backers?
The best part about independent creators is that they're usually transparent; if you chat to them on twitter you're probably getting them and not a pat-answer from PR or their secretary or something. This is also where you find out that some people just can't shut themselves up, and you kind of want to call their mother and ask if they know their kid is calling people slurs on the internet.
If they're dodging criticism, making spurious and contradictory claims, or generally being rude and insulting, be wary. Someone who's made the decision to crowdfund has made the decision to allow hundreds of strangers to have a vested interest in their work, and they have to be prepared for that.
If they're astroturfing, RUN. Nobody reputable makes sock-puppets to talk up their product. If you have enough confidence in your work, you'll let it stand for itself.
(If you have a friend who's doing a kickstarter and they're getting criticism... please don't speak for them unless you're prepared to be absolutely calm and factual. Even then, think twice. You're not "sticking up for your friend" if you're making them look bad. If your friend is bugging you to defend them from meanie commenters, smack your friend upside the head.)
6. What are other people saying?
This is the easiest one, though not necessarily the most foolproof one. Google the kickstarter name and see if it's been featured on any news journal sites or forums. If you're seeing one or two dubious people, it might be just them. If a lot of people are very suspicious and have masses of evidence to back up their concerns, start being worried. We make fun of wannabe tryhard internet sleuths, but sometimes they have a point. Also note that video games journal sites notoriously lack proper research, rely on the rumour mill, and are just full of hyperbole.
Incidentally, just because your favorite blogger or content creator has linked to the kickstarter, that doesn't necessarily mean it's legit. A lot of famous people get inundated with requests to signal boost this or that endeavour, and they're usually too busy to inspect every single link. I've seen normally-trustworthy people link to donation drives where the organizers involved were compulsive liars or flakes or generally not operating in good faith. Shit, don't even trust me! I'm a fallible human being like anyone else.
Tip: If someone was proven to be a liar/flake/etc one or two years ago, maybe still be worried. Two years is actually a very short time and not enough for someone to have changed for the better. Try five to ten years. And even then.
Yubi, are you basically saying "Don't donate to crowdfunding projects at all?"
Honestly... yeah, kinda. Kickstarting is supposed to be a last resort after regular methods have been tried and failed. But the horse is out of the barn, and everyone's crowdfunding now that they know how so easy it is, and no amount of grouchy-old-man huff-and-puffing I do is going to change that.
What I can do is ensure that only the people who deserve my money get it. I don't care how well-meaning someone is, if they can't back up their claims, they can take a hike.
This isn't about making sure I get my sweet kickstarter swag -- I'd apply all of the above criticisms to any actual-facts charity organization, where I'd probably get nothing back but maybe a sticker sheet or something. I want to make sure that talented people with the drive and ability to make awesome things happen DO get the resources to achieve their goals.
If you wouldn't give a few thousand dollars to some fictional nigerian prince, don't give it to someone who'll probably piss it away on unnecessary overpriced animating software that they have no idea how to use, or just as a totally wild example send it to some random paypal address that may or may not be the correct one after all.
tl;dr financial responsibility, motherfuckers! learn it!