Is this the future?

That was what I was asking myself as Yu Suzuki stood before me in the Los Angeles Sports Arena last week.  In front of an audience of millions from around the world, on the biggest stage in all of video games, Sony took the time to announce a Kickstarter.  Not just any Kickstarter, but a Kickstarter for a console exclusive they were investing in which would resurrect the long dormant cult-classic franchise of Shenmue.  It was one of the strangest moments since the Kickstarter phenomena began with the Double Fine Adventure three years ago.  From an internet revolution to an established business model, Kickstarter has been embraced by the loving arms of indie developers and corporate investors alike.

As I sat there, watching thousands of people counting down to the opening of the campaign – the crowning moment of this bizarre experience – I couldn’t help but see Kickstarter for what it had truly become.  How it had so violently changed from a place where independent dreams go to blossom to a field test for B-level titles, blessed by outside funding and fueled by nostalgia.


Kickstarter is Not Dead

The long journey of Double Fine’s Broken Age from a small adventure game Kickstarter campaign to a final product with a mixed critical reception completed the first act of the Kickstarter legacy.  While Kickstarter had enjoyed successes such as Yacht Club’s Shovel Knight or Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity, the failures and PR disasters of crowd-funding site seemed to signal the end of the record-breaking campaign era. Games like The Black Glove were failing to meet funding goals, and the infinite wells of donors had seemed to dry up.

People who had believed in the Ouya had found their dream console realized as a confusing mess of half-baked titles.  Those who donated to  the VR future when supporting the Oculus Rift were discouraged as the independent idea was sold to the corporate behemoth Facebook.  Ideas that likely would have been funded during the early days of Kickstarter were falling short of their goals.  Games that were funded were taking longer than promised to be released or coming out in an unfinished state.  It looked like the sun was quickly setting on Kickstarter.


Kickstarter has Changed

In many ways, those early days of Kickstarter have been left behind.  While there is, no doubt, still a business model which revolves around the crowdfunding platform, crowd-funding has morphed significantly from something which could fund small time developers.  These days Kickstarter has become a testing ground for the titles small, vocal minorities are calling for.  Want a new Mega Man game?  Prove it.  Want a new Castlevania?  Put your money where your mouth is.  InXile will make a new Bard’s Tale, but you gotta pony up some of the cash first.

We often put triple-A publishers on blast for their ridiculous pre-order bonuses and a culture that announces games too early so they can shove silly bonuses down you throat, both digital and physical, but has Kickstarter become any different?  Isn’t Kickstarter a different version of the same idea?  In fact, one could argue that Kickstarter is worse because you can cancel your $5 preorder at GameStop days even after said game has come out, but your Kickstarter money is non-refundable.

You can almost hear the promises being whispered behind closed doors of investors willing to step in and help with development after they’ve seen a fan commitment on Kickstarter.


Kickstarter vs. Sony

While the idea of corporate backers hiding in the wings waiting to see fans put their money where their mouth is isn’t hard to imagine, it’s weird to see Sony be so up front about the whole thing.  Anyone with half a brain had to have guessed that Sony was going to put up some money for their console exclusivity deal.  Why else would the project get such a featured spot during the E3 press conference?

Some members of the press have called out developer Ys Net and Sony, asking why such a big company needs the money of others.  The obvious answer is that Sony wanted proof of what many had only assumed up until this last week.  While people might have suspected Shenmue would draw a hefty crowd, no one could say with certainty what the results would be.

We have to be fair to Sony in this situation.  While seeking crowd-funding for a game already backed by their financial power might seem skeezy, it’s not like Sony didn’t or still doesn’t have something to lose.  Sony bet that the game would make its $2 million goal and gave up valuable time of their E3 press conference on that gamble.   They also still risk losing money if people outside of the initial Kickstarter backers don’t end up buying the game.  A successful Kickstarter does not make for a financial success.  Just ask Double Fine or Tale of Tales, they’ll tell you that you need more than a funded Kickstarter campaign to make a decent profit.


The False Hope of Kickstarter

Earlier this week, Suzuki said in a Reddit AMA, “I will say this: if we reach the $5 mil mark, one of the things I really want to do with Shenmue 3 will become a reality.  At $10 million, it will truly have the features of an open world.”

It’s a pretty bold move, for Suzuki to say that it will take five times the Kickstarter asking price to get the Shenmue sequel everyone is expecting, but whatever faults you have with the Shenmue campaign, the people involved have been honest when asked the tough questions.

Unintentionally, Kickstarter has exacerbated misconceptions regarding the time and cost of game development. While many developers come to the table with a low-ball estimate about how much their game will cost, the budget often inflates based on how the design changes and evolves.  (See: Broken Age development).  Instead of reacting to this down the road and taking Shenmue into early-access or running a second Kickstarter campaign to drum up more funds.  It sounds like Suzuki is trying to encourage people to donate now and not assume because the game is funded everything is rainbows and lollipops.

There was no way Suzuki and Ys Net could ask for $10 million in their Kickstarter, as that would make it the third highest funded project of all time and by far the highest game.  Instead, the team did what many Kickstarter campaigns have done before: started with a goal they were confident would be reached and hoped to raise considerably more than their asking price.  After all, hearing a Kickstarter campaign made 500% of its funding goal of $2 million goal is far more impressive than saying it barely made its goal of $10 million.


What We Learned About Kickstarter

Getting into the very basic ideas of Kickstarter is problematic, as both sides have totally valid points.  I’ve donated to some Kickstarters and scoffed at others; it all comes down to that fickle devil of taste and finding projects which speak to you.  However, it is impossible for Kickstarter to really be bearing out its true purpose.  While small games are funded every day, it’s important to look at campaigns where they only ask for a fraction of their funding and understand that your money isn’t going toward development, but rather going toward a portfolio used to entice other investors who will actually see a return on the money they contribute.

I don’t blame anyone for giving to campaigns they’re passionate about. But it is time to stop tricking ourselves of the notion that these campaigns are for little games-that-can which no one believes in.  We have to understand that Kickstarter is being used as a market to test the strength of fanhood, that these titles we’ve been asking for are locked behind a paywall, and developers are asking to see a financial commitment upfront before making them.  You can no longer demonize preorder culture with one hand and then submit a donation to a Kickstarter campaign with the other – well, you can, but it’s hypocritical.

More than anything, we can’t rush to support these big budget Kickstarters, then sober up the next day and ask why our money was needed.  The reason creators go to Kickstarter before seeking outside funding is quite simple: They can.  There was never any doubt that Shenmue 3 would raise $2 million, or that Bloodstained would come away with less than $500,000.  They knew they could make some money to garner news headlines and reassure investors and that is what Kickstarter has become today.

In many ways, Kickstarter has become a vein of communication between developers and fans.  It allows fans to prove the fervor of the internet has actual spending power.  It’s a way to make sure developers get these games right.  It allows people to prove that sometimes industry analysts get it wrong and marketing experts are fallible.  Fans, creators, and publishers are communicating development better than ever before, and a part of that is thanks to Kickstarter.

As we finish one act of the Kickstarter saga, we inevitably begin a second.  And anyone who thought this second act would be less strange than the first was completely wrong.