Twisted Kickstarter: Crowdfunding and it’s Woes

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Crowdfunding has seen many projects come to life that previously would not of seen the light of day. Ideas for games that would only exist in the minds of dreamers and those lacking vast stacks of disposable cash. Games such as Wasteland II, Shovel Knight and the upcoming Star Citizen would most likely never of come about without such methods. In recent years the concept has spread somewhat into the mainstream games market. Games such as Shenmue III’s annoucement serve as an example of when major releases can effectively pay for their own development via the player base picking up the bill. Ultimately resulting in the game’s guaranteed financial success, or at least breaking even.

In the case of Shenmue, the kickstarter left a bitter taste in the mouth of many, due to the legions of fans who had been praying for a new game in the series. A kickstarter campaign to determine the loyalties of fans, as well as their willingness to fund the game’s development smacked of milking the fan base before a genuine product could even be advertised. Yu Suzuki, the name behind both Shenmue games basically offered himself, a technical trailer and a banner to drum up support; supporters rapidly poured money in regardless.

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Pre-ordering is something that has been with the games industry for a long time, and has often been criticised as a relic of the purely physical media stage of gaming. For major releases especially, it is very unlikely you are not going to be able to get your hands on a copy of a game. Pre-ordering then effectively only serves to boost game sales for the publisher, before reviews can report on the game’s actual features and performance. The truth of that can be seen in pre-order exclusive content, or beta access, as a means of securing sales targets before the game’s retail release.

Crowd-funding major releases is an evolution of the pre-order culture that dominates currently. This most recently has been witnessed with the short lived campaign for the latest Deus Ex game. Square Enix announced that Deus Ex: Mankind Divided would have a Kickstarter-style tier ‘reward’ system for it’s pre-orders. The sickening phrase: “augment your pre-order” was the tagline, beckoning fans of the series to drum up support and get involved in the pre-order system; the more pre-orders sold, the better the rewards would be.  The fourth and final upgrade would result in the game being released four days early, which to many seemed like a tiny reward to those who had just spent their time marketing the game for it’s publisher free of charge.

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As with many of the developments in game making and marketing in the triple A gaming industry, a lot of this strikes of testing the limits of consumer patience. Double Fine very recently announced that it will be crowdfunding another title: the long awaited sequel to Psychonauts. As I intimated earlier, Double Fine have crowdfunded many titles in recent years to a mixture of results; Broken Age being both praised and blasted by critics, whilst Spacebase DS-9 was abandoned after releasing into early access, earning the developers much resentment.

Double Fine is able to a large extent maintain its support by the charismatic and eccentric personality of Tim Schaefer. His sterling list of previous LucasArts games, as well as his later independent work have fostered goodwill towards his future projects, regardless of his track record of going over budget or failing to meet deadlines. This trend is troubling when coupled with the potential for publishers to use similar gaming personalities to secure backing from gamers, especially if they are asking for investment. It is troubling majorly because of the possibility to offer the revival of much loved gaming franchises, if gamers are willing to at least contribute to development costs, setting a foul precedent. A precedent that suggests that companies can not only expect to gauge interest in a franchise before development, but also develop the game for no financial risk on their part.

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It’s obviously not all doom and gloom. The crowdfunded game of course has the benefit of not necessarily needing a publisher, a publisher who may tamper with or change the game’s original idea or content. In addition, crowdfunding as stated at the beginning of this article has allowed many titles that simply would not be picked up by publishers to get released at all. The problem lies in the potential for publishers to push development costs into the hands of potential consumers, and still releasing the game at full price for the general public. The potential for publishers to maximise their profits whilst minimising costs is an obviously tempting proposition for them, but one that is inherently anti-consumer if the savings/profits are not passed on.

Now it might be considered rash to suggest that developers and/or publishers would not pass on the profits to consumers by lowering prices of the games in question. To this idea I can only say that the developments of physical media to disc and then to online marketplaces resulted in full-price games being sold at the same average price or more, whilst the costs of production and shipping dropped. So in that regard, I would think it naive to suggest that publishers would as a rule act in consumer friendly ways in regards to asking for their investment.

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Crowdfunding has the potential for gamers to decide which games are created by voting with their dollars, and that is in theory a great thing. The problem lies in the potential for long established franchises to become reliant on backers, regardless of it’s actual popularity, which might well result in many new games being overshadowed. In addition crowdfunding may become a norm like that of pre-order culture, meaning that certain game features or content may be gated to those who did not invest. In short, crowdfunding can be both a blessing and a curse for the industry, but perhaps one that will allow a little more risk from major publishers.

 


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