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Are Crowdfunding and the Gaming Industry Failing Each Other?

Posted by on September 22, 2017.

Kickstarter Games’ Failures

Crowdfunding has firmly established itself as part of 21st-century economics, despite a lot of early and ongoing scepticism. Prominent crowdfunding site Kickstarter, the centrepiece of these emerging economies, has seen more than three billion dollars-worth of pledges across all its projects. Ever adaptive and eager for new methods of monetization, the gaming industry has become intimately involved with such crowdfunding, with both independent developers funding their ambitious projects through customer interest, and larger AAA publishers engaging in some more cynical uses of the platform. But with the quantity of projects that disappoint backers and fail to deliver on their promises feeling disproportionately high, could this platform be doing the industry more harm than good?

Kickstarter campaigns often target genres and franchises that have gone long-ignored by larger publishers; The Mighty No. 9 debacle is still fresh in many gamers’ memories, but the project once generated immense optimism among Mega Man fans, Capcom’s franchise having gone largely untended by its publisher with fans still eager for more gameplay in the same style. Although the project was headed up by Mega Man veteran Keiji Inafune and quickly hit its $900,000 funding goal (even ending up with nearly $4,000,000 in total), the development was plagued by problems, and not only did the eventual game receive poor reviews from critics and users alike, but many of the campaign’s additional promises were botched, delayed or outright ignored.

Another highly visible game industry personality to figurehead a Kickstarter project was Peter Molyneux with what was advertised as a “reinvention of the god game,” GODUS. Molyneux certainly had experience with the genre, having been behind the cult classic Populous series, as well as the well-loved Dungeon Keeper and Theme Park series. However, Molyneux’s reputation for deceptive marketing of his games – or at least ‘over-promising’ – began to emerge as far back as 2004, when Fable released, lacking a huge proportion of the features and scope that Molyneux had promised. However, the veteran game designer still had enough good faith from gamers for GODUS to achieve its £450,000 funding goal in December 2012. The campaign originally promised that the game would be finished in seven to nine months, but by September 2013 the game was still in an early access, unfinished state. Over the next few years, several campaign promises went unaddressed, and in 2014 Molyneux unveiled a new project while GODUS development still floundered. In 2016, Molyneux left his 22Cans studio entirely, leaving the game and all its unfulfilled promises for the studio to deal with.

Yooka-Laylee is a less extreme case but left many gamers feeling let down upon its release. Although it had a much less troubled development than No. 9 and didn’t abandon its campaign promises like GODUS, the game harshly divided critics and was accused of leaning too much on nostalgia instead of focusing on the playability and polish of its own product. Camera and control issues were often cited by critics, and though Playtonic Games released a patch that addressed a lot of the criticism reasonably quickly, it still resulted in a shaky launch and mixed feelings from many gamers about the title.

Not a Hopeless System

Backing a game on Kickstarter is far from a guarantee of disappointment, however – there’s no shortage of games which have received overwhelming praise after being funded on the platform. Perhaps the best example of all is Shovel Knight. The first project of Yacht Club Games, Shovel Knight was not the first game to be funded through Kickstarter, but was the first runaway success to both vastly exceed its funding goals and deliver capably on all promises made, receiving widespread praise from both critics and players. Another original title which evoked a nostalgic, 8-bit look, Shovel Knight’s Kickstarter campaign asked for only $75,000, but was backed for more than $300,000 by users. After release, the game was both a critical and commercial success and the titular character became such a well-known figure that he has cameoed – and continues to cameo – in a wide variety of other indie games, and has had an Amiibo made by Nintendo – the first ever Amiibo of a character not associated with a Nintendo 1st-party title.

You don’t have to look too far to find other games that have impressed backers and succeeded in their goals. The Banner Saga trilogy had its third entry successfully funded in March this year, after the first two games received high praise for their visual style, gameplay and storytelling. The original Banner Saga was intended to be a single game – a personal project for the developers at Stoic Games, but with the Kickstarter campaign receiving more than $700,000 in pledges and the original target just $100,000, Stoic decided to increase the scope and ambition of the game, leading to an overwhelmingly positive reception. Another project, Undertale, asked for an extremely modest US$5,000 to make an RPG styled after fan-favourite classic games like the Mother series. The Kickstarter was funded for more than $50,000, and in September 2015 Undertale was released to a storm of praise and became a cornerstone of ‘internet culture’ well into 2016.

The Subversion of Crowdfunding

While these examples show that games certainly can succeed on Kickstarter, and there’s nothing about the platform inherently damaging to game development, larger developers and publishers are starting to undermine crowdfunding with the questionable practice of combining crowdfunding with traditional investments and partnerships with larger companies. The latest game to pursue this route is We Happy Few. After its Kickstarter campaign succeeded, development proceeded without issue and an early access version was released in July 2016. Although critics had mixed reactions to this early build, it was generally agreed that the game still had enough scope and potential for improvement for it not to be written off completely. However, after steady updates and no warning, the developer of We Happy Few, Compulsion Games, announced it would be partnering with Gearbox Software, suddenly changing the game from a $30 independent release to a $60 AAA title, complete with more expensive limited and pre-order editions. While Compulsion Games does seem to have the intention to use the additional funding from Gearbox to increase the scope of the game and add content, it can still be taken as a betrayal of crowdfunding’s independent ethos, and has angered many backers who may not have contributed if they had known that the big-budget industry would be involved with the project.

The progenitor of this practice may have been Shenmue 3; it was certainly one of the earliest and most well-known cases. Much like many games to be found on Kickstarter, the Shenmue series was a much-beloved franchise which had gone ignored by the gaming industry for 14 years. In 2015, Sony announced a Kickstarter campaign for a long-demanded sequel, and the campaign not only succeeded in eight hours, but ended up tripling the initial target of US$2 million and breaking the funding record for video game Kickstarters. The project became controversial when Sony revealed that it was providing additional funding to Shenmue III’s budget – and had always intended to do so, despite the Kickstarter campaign never having mentioned this partnership, with the crowdfunding campaign only existing for Sony to “gauge interest” from gamers. A FAQ on the Kickstarter page did mention “other funding sources” without specifying a large publisher like Sony, but even that was only introduced to the campaign page after the $2 million goal had already been reached.

While Sony’s dishonesty over Shenmue 3 is certainly a bad-faith use of crowdfunding, there’s nothing inherently wrong with funding a game partially through crowdfunding and partially through a larger publisher, provided the developer is transparent about it. It’s another story when a game sells itself as being completely crowdfunded, only to seek further financial backing later after the development has burnt through all the campaign funds and failed to deliver the product. An ongoing Kickstarter disaster of this sort is that of Unsung Story. Playing on fans’ love for the Final Fantasy Tactics series, the project was brought about by Yasumi Matsuno, who has directed, written and produced for various titles in that series.

The game, a joint effort between Yasumi Matsuno and Playdek, scraped through its US$600,000 Kickstarter goal just in time, only for the developer to immediately go quiet, breaking a commitment to “weekly development updates” within just a few months. The initial release date passed without comment from Playdek until after the fact, and it was eventually revealed that Yasumi Matsuno had ended his involvement with the project at some unknown time. Playdek continued to break promises for more regular updates and transparency but eventually announced that further funding had been secured from an outside source, leaving the original backers in the dark about where their money had gone. Between December 2016 and August 2017, Playdek fell silent on Unsung Story’s development, only to suddenly announce that it was abandoning the project and passing the rights to small developer Little Orbit, which stated that it would be starting from scratch with the project.

Although Little Orbit’s takeover of the project has rekindled a faint hope for some backers, this still apparently leaves every penny of the original Kickstarter campaign’s budget vanished into the ether – and unless a project terminates before the backers’ money has been spent, there’s nothing Kickstarter can do to protect those investments.

No Guarantees

Every Kickstarter project is a gamble for its backers to some degree – the platform has some steps in place to keep developers accountable, but there’s little anyone can do if a studio simply runs out of money, whether their promises are fulfilled or not. Combine this with the concerning trend for a Kickstarted game to get additional funding from a large publisher – which at its worst is highly exploitative and deceptive – and faith in crowdfunded games is already on shaky ground.

Amid all this uncertainty, all eyes will be upon Koji Igarashi’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Due for release in March 2018, it will be the next project on the same scale as Mighty No. 9 to release after being backed on Kickstarter. Though good will towards the game has already taken a slight dent, with Igarashi announcing a partnership with 505 Games to help complete the last leg of development, hopes are still high for the industry veteran. Bloodstained’s release will show whether he can overturn the trend of botched, publisher-partnered Kickstarter games that play off gamers’ love for a classic series but utterly fail to deliver.

Kickstarter as a platform is very capable of sustaining independently-developed games, and offers the industry a healthy alternative to the big-publisher AAA market. However, with so many highly-visible failures and betrayals of the crowdfunding ethos by augmenting Kickstarter funding with publisher backing, Igarashi’s Bloodstained will be under a lot of pressure to perform well and live up to all its promise. With all its parallels to Mighty No. 9, it could be a rallying point for confidence in crowdfunded games – or a tipping point for gamers losing faith in the idea completely.

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Submitted in: Expert Views, Josh Townsend |