A KICKSTARTER CAROL

You know what? I don’t trust Kickstarter. Not one jot. I’d feel more positive about a shark in a paddling pool filled with children. Perhaps it’s how cautious I am with my money, but there’s something suspect about a system that says “cough up cash now and maybe we’ll get round to creating a product vaguely similar to the one we mentioned later.” Call me cynical – and I’m sure you do, if you’ve read this site before- but that seems a little shifty.

However, it’s clearly taken some people, because Shenmue 3 recently made enough money to drown a small city, and it’s not like Sony, a major international corporation that’s leading the global console race and has hands in just about every technological aspect of society, would be able to afford a few million to fund a game that’s basically guaranteed to be a success. No, we had to cough up for that one, I’m afraid.

The problem was that I used to be in favour of crowd-funding, and to a certain extent I still am. I like the theory, I guess would be the best way of explaining it. Conceptually it makes sense, but in reality it keeps letting us down, and not in any small ways. You can tell how broken this system is by looking at a trio of games I’ve come to think of as The Ghosts Of Kickstarter Past, Present, and Future.

The Ghost of Kickstarter Past is the least offensive of the three, Tim Schafer’s and Double Fine’s adventure game Broken Age (released in two halves about a year apart), the project that proved that having an interlude might work for theatre but it don’t hold well with PC gaming.

Broken Age was one of the first real gaming successes on Kickstarter, and like Shenmue 3, it came out of the initial funding process with a startling amount of cash. After asking for four hundred grand, Schafer stumbled away with three and a half million clogging his piggy bank, and even at the time I could suspect what was going to happen. Because let’s be honest about one thing here – it will never cost that much to make a point-and-click adventure game, not unless you’re hiring the cast of the Avengers for the voices and building functional starships for the motion capture.

BA Tree

There’s a “got wood” joke here, but I’m not going to acknowledge it until someone else does.

Something tells me that before it got so much funding, Double Fine was planning on a single release, but after getting loaded like this they must have felt obliged to do more, and that was the problem. The initial vision was being hampered by public demand, and they were duty-bound to listen. Tim Schafer might have been planning a short and powerful game, but short games don’t cost over three million, so suddenly they’re having to change it, stretch it, and god, it shows. So much of the second half seems dull or made-up at the last moment, like they weren’t planning on making it at all.

But what was the alternative? If they made a short game, people would’ve been annoyed and wanted to know where all that money had gone, and there’s no system in place to give a certain percentage of it back, at least not that I know of. The ideal situation would have been a limit to how much could have been donated, but the day that a company turns down three million is the day that Rob Liefeld looks at a character design and thinks “that’s probably enough belt pouches.”

Next we have the Ghost of Kickstarter Present. It’s the worst of the three, and also the one most deserving of being described as an ethereal being with no basis in reality. I’m referring to the infamous case of Godus, the hypothetical game suggested by Peter Molyneux and 22 Cans.

This one is so messy that it’s probably deserving of an article on its own, but I’ll try to condense it down and be brief. Peter Molyneux was a game director working for Lionhead, and was the guy responsible for the Fable games. After Fable: The Journey, he went on to help form a developer company called 22 Cans, and immediately opened with a new Kickstarter campaign for Godus, a PC god-game in which you torment small people from above and occasionally help them out if you’re bored, that sort of thing.

Godus inspire

Well, this is awkward.

Godus got the money it needed and then some. That’s not to say it exploded like Broken Age did, but it held out a begging cup for four hundred and fifty thousand pounds, and not only succeeded but got an extra seventy-five grand on top of that, so I think we can call it a win.

Or at least, it should’ve been a win. Funding for Godus ended in December 2012, and for a while everything was quiet while the backers waited for it to show up. In May the next year, a horribly glitchy Alpha version of the game was put out for testing, and everybody promptly shat on it from a very great height. Not that an Alpha build should be perfect, the whole point is that it’s a work in progress, but huge sections of the game were missing and it was so technically incomplete as to be basically unplayable. It wasn’t a skeleton of a game waiting to be fleshed out, it was missing both femurs and couldn’t stand up without suffering multiple fractures.

Then came an even longer wait with only minimal updates from 22 Cans, until in August of 2014 when they put out a mobile version of the game, something that nobody had wanted but was coming out anyway on our dime, so suck it up. It bore shockingly little resemblance to the original concept, people got angry, key designers started quitting 22 Cans, and the result was that a boat that was already unstable began to rock very violently indeed. The reputation of the developers was irreversibly damaged and Molyneux was ordered not to speak to the public anymore.

Today, Godus does still exist on Steam Early Access, but it’s buggy, unfinished and ignored, like a sick puppy left in an alleyway. Whole features like multiplayer are missing, and the end result is that thousands of backers have been asking for their money back, which seems to me to be very reasonable.

I find it hard to believe that there’s any complexity to this issue. If you’re taking money from people in order to make a product, it’s your duty to make that product, isn’t it? Nobody tricked Mr. Molyneux, nobody forced him to make claims about the game that he couldn’t live up to, and he’s the one who chose how much money was necessary.

Now, if he’d tried to make it, failed, and returned the cash, then that would be different. A designer who is famous for over-promising does an Icarus-style flop in front of everybody and has to hand back what’s left of his wings. That would be disappointing, but not actively outrageous. But what we have now is a mobile game that nobody asked for and a non-functional design on Steam, neither of which have the larger features that were part of the reason that people were funding it.

Godus water

“Don’t be a fool Bobby, you’ll never make it! We’ll just have to live on this island for the rest of our lives.”

Maybe the PC version will be fixed and even upgraded to the full package, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that this has taken three years, when 22 Cans initially promised it to be finished in seven months. It doesn’t excuse the fact that certain factors about the business plan have been changed, such as taking on a publisher when it was initially claimed that no such thing would happen. It doesn’t excuse the fact that Bryan Henderson, a young man who won the “God Of Gods” award they had going and was therefore entitled to a certain cut of the profits, has been basically ignored from the start and wasn’t given a bean. Guess his reward isn’t one of those things that’s going to make it into the final product, so better luck next time.

The strange thing is that nothing happened about all this. The word “fraud” is spoken in hushed tones around this incident, and I don’t know enough about the legality of Kickstarter to say whether that’s a valid accusation or not, but I think we can agree that morally there’s something very off about all this. No real effort was made to undo the errors or even just to give a genuine show of apology. There’s been talk about the fact that they might just abandon Godus altogether and start on a new game, and Peter Molyneux has admitted in an interview there’s still some Kickstarter money left, so to that I respond thus – GIVE IT BACK. You weren’t given that cash to make some unrelated game, it was donated so you could make Godus, and if you’re not going to make it then you should give it back. That’s just the way it works. Or at least, that should be the way it works, but nothing’s been done to reimburse the public and it doesn’t seem likely at this point. Most of the donations are gone, and it seems 22 Cans has arbitrarily decided it’s done enough to validate the claims.

I should probably move onto the next example before I get too angry, because I can feel my blood pressure rising and lord knows with the amount of red meat I eat, I don’t need that as well, though I doubt the next example is going to do much to calm me down. The reason is that the final spectre is the Ghost (or perhaps Ghosts) of Kickstarter Future, and the title is richly deserved, because this is a story all about looking ahead rather than doing what it needed to be done at that moment.

Our story begins in 2013, where Keiji Inafune (one of the main figures behind the legendary game series Mega Man), suddenly popped out of nowhere. He’d left Capcom to start his own company called Comcept, and like 22 Cans, he started by putting a new idea on Kickstarter named Mighty No. 9, a spiritual successor to the older classic for which he was rightly famous. Announced at PAX with the goal of making $900,000, by the end of the month it had made over four million and had become one of the most successful crowd-funding campaigns in history.

Everybody was very excited, and sat down to wait for it. And wait. And wait again. Whilst progress was evident, it was taking quite a long time, and then, just to rub our noses in it, two additional crowd-funding campaigns were started up in 2014, one for a DLC pack and another for a bunch of additional extras, including an English voiceover. Hmm, that seems a little suspect. You’re asking for more money before the game is out? Why wasn’t this part of the original campaign, and why can’t you afford it, considering you made over four times what you needed? Alright, fine. We’ll let it go for now, as long as you don’t ask for more.

MN9 Enemy design

It seems that one of the enemies you fight in Mighty No. 9 is an aggressive wall clock. Who knew?

Except that they did. In July 2015 Comcept started a new campaign for a game called Red Ash: The Indelible Legend. Even from the start it was problematic, as the game had been poorly explained. Is this linked to Mighty No. 9? Which consoles is it coming out on? And why on earth is there a second crowd-funding effort on a different page for a “Red Ash” anime show?

Then the confusion turned to anger. Hold on, people said, why are you making this at all? Why aren’t you finishing the original game and using the profits from that to fund this new one? Why are you asking for another $800,000 before you’ve proven the first investment was justified? Unsurprisingly, this new campaign failed to meet its goals, making just over half a million before it ran out of time and became just another hypothetical idea.

What didn’t help was that Comcept were treating the public with a very obvious lack of respect, talking about how it was so important that they met the stretch goals… Whereupon Comcept would get around to deciding what those stretch goals were. No, really. They wouldn’t talk about what you’d get for putting in more money, only assured you that you’d regret doing otherwise. The exact words were thus:

“The Kickstarter campaign is going 100% towards more content! Consider your pledge a contribution to stretch goals from here on out.

Exactly what are those stretch goals? We’re sorry to say that will have to wait a little while longer! Like we said, we’re very busy with many behind-the-scenes things over here, and we apologize if you feel left in the dark. As you can see, the things we have brewing that are keeping us occupied are BIG, and all for the purpose of getting you RED ASH in its biggest, bestest form.”

There were two implications here, the first one being “all we need to do is snap our fingers at this point and you’ll pay up. We don’t even need to say what we’re making, we know you’ll fund it for us anyway.” The second one was more insidious, more subtle. Look at the last sentence and what they mention – “Red Ash in its biggest, bestest form.”

The suggestion is unavoidable. Anything other than the maximum is sub-standard, it’s not what it could be. And surely you don’t want to miss out on the best version of the game you can get, otherwise it would be… Well, worse.

This tactic has been used for a long time and is dangerously effective, it’s the same reason that we feel the urge to pre-order for the content bonuses. Nobody likes to think that they’re missing out, that they’re getting a product that is anything less than perfect, but we know that we are. It takes a great deal of self-control to say “no, I’ll stick with the inferior version, thanks,” and a lot of people would rather pay the penalty and get the best version of the game that’s going.

The end result is that Red Ash has been torpedoed, and unless the company uses the profits from Mighty No. 9 to make it, it won’t exist. And why? Because they got greedy. One of the company members has claimed that large sections of the team were done and they needed a new project, but they must have known how it would look. Their desperation for cash was so obvious, they didn’t even wait to think up stretch goal incentives, assuming that the public would be gullible enough just to smilingly hand over their hard-earned money.

The fact of the matter is that these examples prove that the system needs to change. Some might say that it’s the people, not Kickstarter itself, but that’s kind of the point – Kickstarter is a system used by people, and it’s revealed itself to be full of holes. You need a method of crowd-funding that can’t be exploited, because otherwise people will exploit it, they’ll get carried away and make stupid, short-term decisions that benefit them and nobody else. It’s not good enough to say that not the site’s fault, because people are a key part of it. You might as well say “Seaworld would be completely ethical if Shamu would stop moping around and enjoy herself for once.”

The key issue here seems to be oversight and regulation. In their defence, Kickstarter has recognised this and is making an effort to be more hands-on, but it’s going to need a lot more of this sort of thing before people feel safe, because for the last few years the site has basically operated on the Honour System, and when this kind of money is going around, that just isn’t good enough.

There needs to be more awareness of how excess money can change demands, there needs to be a legally binding contract to ensure that those asking for funding have to live up to their side of the bargain, and there needs to be the understanding that you are beholden to those who have invested in you, just like in any other business. You can’t just cut and run, or produce a semi-functional product and call it a day.

Chivalry arm

See what we can achieve when we try? …Um, It’s more about the principle than the actual image.

And again, I like the idea of crowd-funding in theory. If a new developer or even just an independent designer working in his bedroom has an idea, and neither have the income for it, then Kickstarter can be what makes the difference, but the system by which it operates needs to be changed. At its best, Kickstarter provides awesome projects like the Shadowrun games, FTL: Faster Than Light, Chivalry, and of course, Elite: Dangerous. Examples like these are enough to prove that we should keep trying to make this work.

Of course, you could always donate generously to a different cause, like the Joel Franey Fund, which will keep me angrily shouting at the screen for years to come. And remember, we have stretch goals! If you donate enough, then I’ll be able to afford a pizza so large that I will literally stretch the jeans I’m wearing. How could you turn that down?

2 thoughts on “A KICKSTARTER CAROL

  1. Unfortunately, there was no way in hell Shenmue 3 was ever “basically guaranteed to be a success” – it’s an incredibly niche title that got such high funding thanks to a small but ridiculously passionate fanbase. If you look at it, the average amount per backer is actually very high! Which speaks to the passion of Shenmue fans. Without KS funding Shenmue 3 would have been dead in the water (and has been for years!), but the ability of fans to “give what they want” skirts around conventional sales and allows the game to make more than it otherwise would, so to speak, which makes production of the game far more viable. I guess you’ll see that when they start taking PayPal donations and a small few thousand continue with #30onthe3rd to boost funding.

    That’s what KS is for, really. It’s for niche games that probably wouldn’t get made any other way, without vocal and monetary support from those diehard fans who will throw cash at it, like Shenmue 3 and Pillars of Eternity. People misusing it is another thing entirely and is a huge shame. Hopefully Fig is better in this regard.

    If you want more information about the development cycle of Broken Age, you can watch the “Double Fine Adventure” documentary that was put out thanks to KS funding. It’s really fantastic and shows that the vision of Schafer and his team was pretty straightforward and the Act 2 content was pretty much there from the get-go. 🙂

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  2. The thing about Shenmue that made it seem guaranteed in my mind was that very thing you mentioned – it’s a ridiculously passionate fanbase, and we know that a small group with a real passion will usually come out best over a larger one that’s fairly disinterested. The average from each backer comes down to just over ninety-one dollars, and I don’t believe that Sony weren’t aware of how much people were willing to donate. They would’ve had researchers working to find out if there was a real need for Shenmue III, it’s a cautious company. They wouldn’t have bothered with this if they didn’t think there was a market for it, because what was originally a quiet, critically admired but commercially unimpressive game has now become something of a cult classic.

    And with regards to Broken Age, I can’t quite believe that even if the basic story was the same, it wasn’t padded significantly in the second half. The huge gap between them was, as I’ve heard it, due to money running low and the studio understanding that the best way to refill funds was to put out the first half and use the profits from that. Schafer said, in an interview with Gameinformer, that the story was essentially complete before they knew they would be splitting it, and just happened to have a perfect moment to do so. So what it looks like to me is that they had this first cliffhanger, which is fair enough, and whilst the beat-by-beat plot points for the next half were known, they realised then it wasn’t quite long enough and had to start padding it out. It’s possible this is just my critical opinion distracting me, but I don’t think I’m imagining a great deal less focus in the second half, like they knew it wouldn’t be long enough and needed to keep pushing it on, accounting for a sudden delay of Part 2 by about half a year. Or maybe it’s just me being cynical again.

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