Mighty No. 9 started as a compromise. A compromise of a creator unable to continue a franchise under the company unwilling to push that franchise forward. A compromise of fans willing to accept a game that is, at its core, a knock-off. Everyone involved hoped that this compromise could bear fruit: backers get a new “Mega Man;” Kenji Inafune gets his chance to create a new “Mega Man;” Capcom gets to continue to own Mega Man.

Whether it is work, school, or a loved one, everyone compromises in their relationships in the hope that it will eventually lead to mutual (and even personal) gain and benefit. It’s a common everyday thing, made idealistic when one considers that true compromise is only achieved when one person believes the other to hold up their end of the relationship. Compromise, for all the negative connotations of the word, is built on trust.

That, at its core, is one of the beauties of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter for gaming. They highlight how much the general public trusts a developer can deliver a game. When Inafune announced his new take on Mega Man, propping up his promise with only artwork and no actual gameplay, backers lined up, trusting the man to deliver what he had delivered countless times before: if not the ‘real thing’ then a Mega Man experience.

When the public doesn’t trust the creator’s vision, however, we get a situation like Denis Dyack and his Eternal Darkness follow-up, a project that never got over the funding goal hurdle, despite at time of its announcement having a more complete version of this game to demonstrate. Dyack’s plea for funding suffered from reports of his mismanagement of his previous company.

At their best, public funding platforms are a space for new or interesting ideas—ones that have been rejected by private financiers and larger game development companies. If those ideas are shown to be truly viable and feasible, they get backed. In boring investment speak, they can prove that there is a “demand” and a “market” for those ideas. They are supposed to highlight talent and vision over stagnation and bottom-line thinking.

At it’s worst, though, and a trend that began around the time of the Mighty No. 9 campaign, Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms are another arm of a company’s marketing efforts. Videos acting as hype machines are common in games—audiences practically expect them now—but the difference here is that at the end of this sizzle reel, the developer is asking for money else the game or project never comes to fruition. Given the fandom surrounding some of these franchises, the worst offenders verge on emotional blackmail.

“Don’t you want the Shenmue trilogy to come to an end?” Unless of course Shenmue III sells, then there will be a Shenmue IV; and probably another crowdfunding campaign for that.

 

RoundTableShenmue3

 

The fact is that trust in these platforms is beginning to erode. For every responsible emerging developer, like Yacht Club Games (creators of the Mega Man-inspired Shovel Knight) and MidBoss (Read Only Memories), there are those with access to private funding that are exploiting the marketing capabilities of these platforms. What was once novel is becoming more and more abused, and mistrust is starting to seep in. The process is going backwards, aiding bigger names in the business instead of emerging artists. Just last week, Origin announced a Kickstarter for a System Shock remake. Nothing says new or original like a remake.

Another problem is that some developers are outspoken about their intentions often after funding ends. After the Mighty No. 9 Kickstarter closed, in an interview in a October 2013 issue of Game Informer, Inafune said that if given the chance to publish with Capcom, he would have considered re-skinning Mighty into another Mega Man game. If the point of a Kickstarter is to give a creator full control over their creation, why would anyone back a developer willingly admitting to wanting to relinquish that control? This mentality isn’t funding independence; it’s funding conglomerates.

It’s also not clear how crowdfunded money is spent. Many larger developers already have a rough budget for their projects that is being covered with private funds. It’s not uncommon for a campaign, which usually garners free publicity for the known product (System Shock, again, got a pre-Kickstarter announcement on Polygon), to spend those funds on marketing. There are many marketing companies offering services to help people set up Kickstarters and extend their services beyond when pledging closes. It’s not a stretch to see where the money comes from to pay these services.

It’s easy to say that such cases are isolated, but the biggest names attract the most coverage, and if they are shown to be using these funding platforms for ill or fail in the process, then the platforms themselves will become tainted by that abuse. And yes, currently, Kickstarter asks that developers tell their backers how funds were used, but only if the funded project fails to deliver. With no guidelines on how detailed developers need to be about those funds, it’s not hard to imagine a developer placing all funds under a line item like “development” and considering that explanation enough.

More importantly, failure of bigger players, either through mishandling their campaigns or releasing poorly made, over-promised games, threatens to taint smaller developers—the people who these platforms were supposedly meant to serve. It’s guilt by association of the funding platform. The question now is how does the trust not become completely eroded? How does crowdfunding enter the next phase?  Patreon offers some solutions, opting that you directly fund the creator rather than the product, and it even lists how much money that person is getting per month. (NOTE: Indie Haven has a Patreon.)

For those not opting for Patreon, it’s going to come down to transparency. What would be beneficial to help rebuilding that confidence in these sites is if they instructed developers to mandatory accounting of the whole project in the updates sent to backers. Take a page from public companies and open up the books.

It doesn’t have to be a line-by-line accounting and it doesn’t have to give away trade secrets. Even public company reports, like those for Nintendo and EA, place figures under such wide banners as “R&D” and “marketing.” Someone on the other end of that established developer or newly minted indie company has the figures of where the money for their project is going. Why isn’t that information shared with the person backing the project? Shouldn’t they know, in more detail, where their money is going?

For example, developers can simply report that $20,000 pays to keep the office lights on. That’s a completely understandable expense; however, when they use Kickstarter funds to pay for an ad or pay for E3 booths, that layer of expense should be exposed to public scrutiny. The public may not like where the money is spent, but the knowledge alone would go a long way toward building goodwill and faith in these platforms again. The public is willing to compromise on what are the necessary costs of a project, as long as those seeking crowdfunding are willing to trust them with that knowledge.

  • I am left to wonder what’s behind that enigmatic headline!

    • Yeah, that was a little bit of a deep cut. It’s a reference to The Beatles track “Revolution No. 9” off the White Album. When it’s played backwards it sounds like the speaker is saying “Turn me on, dead man.” Take a listen: https://youtu.be/5cW-t7aFMEI