Is Kickstarter still a viable alternative to publishers

I recently received a code for a game I backed on Kickstarter over two years ago, and for the life of me I don’t rmember why. The game looks fine, it’s a platformer that mixes up the gameplay elements by harking to the platformer titles of the 8-bit era, 16-bit era and modern interpretations of the genre. Switching between these modes allow for the game to progress, it’s a neat idea.

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And while that idea might have seemed interesting as a concept, the execution has gone on to show that a nice idea isn’t everything. But this is what is turning into my inherent problem with Kickstarter as a grounds for getting video games made. While the premise was enough for me to drop some money on them at that moment, there is no guarantee that whatever they’re pitching is going to live up to expectations I invent for them in my head. Pitching a good idea, and following through on it are two entirely different things (something I know all too well), so is crowd funding really a realistic avenue for new developers like to seemed to be a few years ago.

Kickstarter is a site that works entirely on this premise. It gives creators the ability to pitch their ideas to the general public and let people donate to the cause with no more promise than a rough outline, or model test if we’re lucky. The inherent problem with using this method to fund video games is that development take a long time. And by the time the game does come out, many if us will have forgotten what made us want to back in the first place.

At best it’s a nice surprise, getting a game you forgot you paid for two or three years previously. At worst, it’s something that has totally changed from the game you felt you were expecting when you dropped money, or you got the wrong idea in the first place. It might sound harsh on the developers out there who just want to get their toes wet in the industry, or who just want to release their passion project, but there are enough people abusing the system now that it’s hard to tell which is which.

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The first big title that made me aware of Kickstarter and made me think we were finally seeing the next step in game publishing was Mighty Number 9. A game from the original Mega man developer wanting to make a spiritual successor to the old Nintendo Entertainment System games of the late 80s and fill the conspicuous gap that Capcom has decided to leave in their lack of interest in developing another Mega Man game.

I wasn’t the only person to find myself excited by this prospect as the game made its funding goal many times over, even adding additional stretch goals that it also managed to get funded by excited fans. People were very enthusiastic about this game, while the Kickstarter was still running fan art was popping up everywhere. Webcomics were making passing of the torch style tributes. It was bizarre, as the game was still very much in the conceptual stage, with little more than some concept art to show for itself.

So it got funded, and then came the realisation that there would be a two year wait for the “beakers” to see any return on the investment they’d made. While this isn’t nessecerily a long time when it comes to video game development, it is a very long time for the general public, who aren’t usually made aware of the game until it’s at least half way through its development cycle.

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What made Mighty No. 9 all the more problematic though was that the developer kept coming forward and asking for even more money. The initial goal for the game was $900,000, it ended up making 3.8 million. And yet the developers continued their fund raising campaign, asking for more money so they could add even more features than discussed in the initial kickstarted pitch.

During the Anime Expo after the game was funded, the developer Comcept announced a way for fans to continue contributing toward the development of their game through Paypal, this was so they could do things like add voice acting (something the classic mega man games, this new title was claiming to evoke, never had) as well as to fund a children’s animated television series. For a video game that was still a fledgling project, they were getting pretty big ideas.

It was here that things started to feel a bit dirty, as they had confirmed their money in the bank, they started adding more projects and things outside of what they had initially promised, to the ire of some of the more purist Mega Man fans who thought they were getting a more classic Mega Man experience.

Things got even stranger when Comcept announced yet another Kickstarter, in fact they announced two of them. While they were still working on Mighty No. 9, they pitched making a game called Red Ash, which was billed as a spiritual successor to Mega Man Legends. On top that they announced another Kickstarter for an animated series to accompany Red Ash. The general public, either tired of Comcept’s shenanigans, or just not as interested in this pitch didn’t get behind Red Ash. The game not getting funded, although the animation did achieve its more modest goal. After the fact, Comcept revealed they were going to make Red Ash anyway, as they had attained additional funding elsewhere.

Well, this is a bit different than everyone was expecting...
Well, this is a bit different than everyone was expecting…

The inherent problem with having all this out in the open is that people forget that making video games is a business-ass business, and descicions like this are made all the time. The only difference is that they’re usually made behind closed doors. Having it all out in public like this makes the whole process seem a lot dirtier than we like to think it really is. In the time since Kickstarter first showed up, the face of the business when it comes to video game development has changed drastically.

Realistically, Kickstarter was never able to raise more money than would be appropriate for an indie level budget. As big titles require millions more than even the most feverant fans could muster. Knowing this, some publishers started to use Kickstarter as a pitching ground. Using it to see how much interest certain ideas can drum up. Giving large scoped games relatively quaint goals, and agreeing to fund the majority of the game if it can prove there is a market for it through backers.

It’s made the industry much more visible to the general public, but at the same time it misrepresents the type of budget it takes to make a game. At last year’s E3 conference, Sony announced the Kickstarter for Shenmue 3 on their main stage, with a very modest goal of $2 dollars. An amount that comes nowhere near to the amount required to fund a game the scope of what the fans want Shenmue to be. Even smashing the goal and making 6 million would still not very what would be required. But even during all of this Sony openly agreed to put more money into the project to supplement the money made by the Kickstarter. So people backed the game, not because they wanted to help fund the game, but rather to show Sony just how incredibly interested they were in the project.

You better believe this backer tier was sold out within minutes of the kickstarter going live.
You better believe this backer tier was sold out within minutes of the kickstarter going live.

This raises the final question. If Sony know there is enough interest in this game that they allow its Kickstarter to be announced during their main E3 press conference, why involve the general public at all. Why don’t they just pay themselves. Hopes for a reality where big publishers aren’t the driving forces behind the biggest games of the year still seems like a pipe dream, as even Kickstarter, a crowd funding tool as become little more than supplementary income for publishers.

When the biggest game of last year, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain cost $80, the most excited of fanboys getting 6 million together seems almost quaint. Kickstarter isn’t the future of video game developers working without publisher pressure, nor is it free of corruption. As it has aged, more and more stories of people perverting the system or simply doing a vanishing act with the money have started to pop up. At the end of the day, video game Kickstarters were an experiment that tried to exist outside of the industry. But ultimately became just another part of an incredibly business orientated industry with a few nice stories to tell for itself.

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