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The Future of Games I Care About: A Brief Overview of Crowdfunding

In early 2012, Double Fine launched a Kickstarter campaign for a then unnamed point and click adventure game meant to be reminiscent of studio founder Tim Schafer’s work on LucasArts classics Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango.  Kickstarter had been used to fund video game projects before the Double Fine Adventure campaign, but they were mostly smaller projects offered by developers with less of a reputation.  

In the intervening decade the template of high profile Kickstarter campaigns from well known developers has become familiar to onlookers.  Often a team or individual who built a reputation making games in a specific genre that has trouble getting funded by publishers in the current market (point and click adventure, shmup, isometric RPG) revisits that genre by turning to Kickstarter for initial funding and potentially to prove to deeper pocketed publishers that there is sufficient enthusiasm among fans to make the concept viable.  The trappings of these campaigns have also become familiar to those of us who participate: stretch goals for exceeding the initial funding target that could include additional characters or areas, hiring a well-known composer for the soundtrack, or additional game modes; the temptation of physical copies, art books, soundtracks, in-person meetings or even dinners with the developers, and other perqs for higher tier pledges; and updates that arrive frequently throughout the campaign to stoke enthusiasm and inevitably slow down as the game enters the long period of development.  

When Double Fine launched DFA a lot of this had not yet been codified around these high profile campaigns, which you can see from the relative paucity of tiers (many of which were added during the campaign if I remember correctly), the richness of the rewards at low pledge levels ($15 got you the game, a multi-episode behind the scenes making-of documentary, and beta access), absence of stretch goals, and a general lack of sophistication when it comes to what economists call price discrimination: charging different people different amounts for essentially the same product based on their willingness to pay.  Subsequent campaigns followed quickly and learned from Double Fine, finely slicing the rewards into tiers, adding some very high level tiers for superfans, and formalizing the concept of stretch goals to keep the level of excitement high among backers and potential backers. Following Double Fine’s success in the largely dormant point and click adventure genre, developers who cut their teeth on computer RPGs, character driven platformers, and space combat simulations entered the fray. 

Brian Fargo is 100% 80s business guy. The guy’s a shark.

Most of the initial frenzy surrounded western developers. inXile, led by Wasteland director Brian Fargo, almost immediately launched a campaign to develop a sequel.  inXile continued to ride the crowdfunding wave, funding Torment: Tides of Numenera (pitched as a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment), a Bard’s Tale sequel, and another Wasteland sequel through Kickstarter. Jordan Weisman, who had recently founded Harebrained Schemes, raised money to develop Shadowrun Returns, the latest in a long running franchise his earlier company FASA initially created as a tabletop RPG in the 1980s. Obsidian Entertainment, led by several individuals from CRPG developer Black Isle, followed later that year with what became Pillars of Eternity. Star Citizen, from Chris Roberts of Wing Commander fame, also launched in 2012 and went on to break every crowdfunding record imaginable (over $400 million, plus over $60 million from marketing partners), probably including the longest time from funding to release as the game has still not announced a publication date.

By 2013, Keiji Inafune capitalized on his affiliation with Mega Man to launch what I recall as the first major crowdfunding campaign from a Japanese developer.  More Japanese projects followed. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was developed by Koji Igarashi as a spiritual successor to the Symphony of the Night style Castelvania games he became known for at Konami.  Yu Suzuki and his company Ys Net launched a highly successful and well-publicized campaign for Shenmue III. Granzella’s success with R-Type Final 2 suggests even mid-sized Japanese teams can raise from Kickstarter with the right project, but crowd funding has been to date more fruitful for westerners.  

Will Granzella crowdfund a Bumpy Trot 2?

In retrospect, several games currently recognized as great (by me) were crowdfunded, a couple even before Double Fine Adventure.  Kentucky Route Zero received backing in 2011; I finally played it in 2020 when all episodes were released on Switch and loved it. Team Cherry raised around 57 thousand Australian dollars (about 85 cents in real money) for Hollow Knight, a game that is regularly compared favorably to Dark Souls, Metroid, and ‘Vania.  Yacht Club Games has delivered an enormous amount of high quality content to backers of Shovel Knight.  Divinity: Original Sin II is considered one of the best CRPGs of the past decade.  Chris has heard of Pathfinder: Kingmaker and Jay loves Night in the Woods. Undertale wasn’t for me but I see why people enjoy it.  I didn’t back Banner Saga because I only enjoy a handful of tactical RPGs, but the team had a Bioware pedigree despite lacking any household names and the series is fantastic (I have argued it conveys the feeling of A Song of Ice and Fire better than any other game I have played). 

Crowdfunding campaigns generally lack protection for backers, so a cynic would say that they are a good way to separate enthusiastic fools from their money.  And certainly campaigns have released games of widely varying quality, if they have released games at all.  As mentioned, Star Citizen has been in development for at least 11 years, almost 10 of which have been after the end of its initial Kickstarter campaign.  The developers of Unsung Story, a purported spiritual successor to Final Fantasy Tactics, perhaps overplayed their connection to Yasumi Matsuno and abandoned development of the game after 5 years without releasing a product.  Similarly, the Project Phoenix team touted credits from Final Fantasy, Valkyria Chronicles, Elder Scrolls, Diablo, Halo and other series but as far as I can tell never even entered development after raising over $1 million. Less dramatically, what gets released sometimes disappoints many of the fans as happened with Mighty Number 9. Until researching this post I completely forgot Richard Garriot raised over $10 million for the apparently mediocre Ultima spiritual successor, Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues 

Jay backed Unsung Story and is unpleased about the situation.

All that said, I have had a very positive experience with Crowdfunded games and enjoy getting excited when my favorite developers launch campaigns for sequels or spiritual successors to games I remember fondly.  I got swept up in the initial wave of high profile Kickstarters, backing Double Fine Adventure, Wasteland 2, Shadowrun Returns, and Project Eternity.  I got Jay involved, and he and I would occasionally split pledges to earn higher tier rewards and back projects we were both excited about.  I even played some of the games!  Broken Age was good, not amazing, but I got more than my $15 worth from the fun of the campaign, documentary, and what I played of the game (a bit more than half).  Shadowrun Returns is a very good game, and the sequel Shadowrun: Dragonfall is great.  Dreamfall Chapters is a worthy continuation of the series, but I am still pining for more games in the universe.  I have never played Wasteland 2 or Pillars of Eternity, but by all accounts they are at least good.  I haven’t played it but I backed There Came an Echo as thanks to the developer, who gave all members of NeoGAF a free copy of his previous game, Sequence, which I played and enjoyed.

I have had a couple of misses, including Two Guys Spaceventure.  I attribute this to my general enthusiasm for campaigns seeking to revitalize point and click games even though I was never a huge fan of Space Quest. It just got a release date so maybe it is actually coming.  I have some Type II errors also, such as my regret for not being on the ground floor of something like Outer Wilds.  Was Shenmue III worth the $400 I pledged?  I have no idea, I haven’t played it yet (a charitable interpretation is that Jay and I are waiting to play it in person together). But I really enjoyed watching reaction videos to the announcement and following the campaign, and am incredibly happy it exists since Shenmue is perhaps my favorite series and I had long given it up for dead.

Most of the Shenmue III budget was spent trying to make Ryu’s face look how it did in the earlier games.

My enthusiasm for crowdfunding projects endures, and these projects form a large part of what I get excited about these days.  I considered investing in Psychonauts 2 through Fig, but settled for a material pledge for what was probably my Game of the Year in 2021.  Sure I am looking forward to God of War: Ragnarok and whatever convoluted title the next Final Fantasy VII remake will have, but Eiyuden Chronicles?  Now that is worth ¥17,200 (apparently).  Perhaps we should just fully convert videolamer to a Yoshitaka Murayama fansite as that is easily my most anticipated game at the moment.   

Looking forward, I think a handful of developers could benefit from the creative freedom crowdfunding offers, and would receive a warm welcome from fans. Masato Maegawa and his team from Treasure, if one still exists, could definitely raise enough for a new shmup if Granzella could use Kickstarter to fund R-Type Final 2.  As a fan of Shadow of Destiny (there are dozens of us!) I would have been curious about what Junko Kawano could have done with backing from fans, but I am also happy to see her working on Eiyuden Chronicles. After their success with Disco Elysium, ZA/UM could certainly attract the attention of publishers, but I am sure they could raise enough on Kickstarter to live like kings in Estonia if they wanted. Frankly, I would be happy to see and probably back a proliferation of imitators since the framework for that game is just so smart. If Denis Dyack hadn’t completely dishonored himself over the past decade it would be fun to see more games in the Legacy of Kain series.  If Camelot Software Planning started a campaign to make a new RPG instead of Mario Tennis: On Switch This Time I’d bet they would hit ambitious goals.  Maybe Pixel needs a few million yen for a follow up to Cave Story.

He is talking about the Deep State.

For those of you skeptical of crowdfunded games, or who have backed games that didn’t materialize, I understand the frustration.  Being doubly burned, losing money and having your hopes for a game you were excited about dashed, sucks. I guess my advice would be a) only pledge what you are willing to lose and b) focus your efforts on campaigns from people who care about protecting their reputations or teams that have released games before.  But gaming is a hobby and getting excited about these (perhaps long shot) projects is as much part of the fun to me as actually playing the games. I am old now, a father who spends most of his time working on my house or entertaining kids, and rarely do I have enough time to even know release schedules, never mind preparing for specific games.  Therefore the heuristic of learning a developer I like, or respect, or know I should care about, announce a new game in a proven style still has the power to make me care.  And given the developers who made many of my favorite games, and the genres I love, have grown less popular, crowdfunding seems to be the home of the projects that excite me. 

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christian
1 month ago

This is an interesting perspective for someone like me.

I have never crowdfunded a game. Ever. And I don’t think I ever will.

I think the root of the problem is that I’m too cynical. Seeing a big, famous name attached to a project doesn’t do much for me. Sometimes they turn out to be scummy/scammy, and other times it turns out that they’re nothing without the talented people of their former studio(s) behind them.

I just don’t feel like putting money down for what is ultimately an unknown quantity, not anymore at least. And to me, every single crowdfunded game is an unknown quantity.

Of course, this makes me an outlier of sorts. Oh well.

chris
Admin
1 month ago

Coincidentally, I was writing a somewhat more cynical take on recent kickstarters. And the Wild Arms / Shadow Hearts kickstarter got announced midway through writing it, so now I’m perseverating about how bad Wild Arms got integrating that news.

I’ve backed 20 or so projects over the years, most of them early on. The most I’ve spent on any single one was Eiyuden Chronicles, but I’m still skeptical it will match the quality of the series. I view it as a gamble, but still better than the typical gamer attitude of “buy {game you don’t care about} to show publishers that this genre is still relevant”. Thank goodness I’ve rid myself of that curse.

christian
1 month ago
Reply to  chris

This outlook makes sense to me only if the amount of money you’re wagering is small. If you toss fifteen bucks at a project to show some support, and end up not buying the game, that’s not too big of a deal.

But so (so) many people treat kickstarters are pre-emptive preorders. If I lay out a $50 pledge, that’s really no different than buying game-you-didn’t-care-about to show publishers that the genre is still relevant.

On that note – is it even possible to pledge that little? How many Kickstarters for video games actually let you toss them five bucks and be done with it?

Last edited 1 month ago by christian
chris
Admin
1 month ago
Reply to  christian

Most Kickstarters have an “I support this” tier with no reward and an amount you enter yourself, so it is possible to pledge that little – the new one I mentioned has one that defaults to $10.

On the other end, there’s Fig (another crowdfunding site) which allows straight-up investment in the game itself, with some percentage of profit coming back to you. I know Wasteland 3 offered that and apparently repaid investors 130% i.e. 30% profit, after 3 years.

For me, I’ve backed 21 kickstarters of which only 2 actually didn’t deliver. I used to back 3-4 a year, and Eiyuden was the first I’ve backed in ~5 years. If I care enough about the genre or original series to back, I’m willing to part with the $50 for a future potential game-I-think-I-want over $50 for game-I-don’t-care-about now, but I understand that gamble is going to look different to different people.

christian
1 month ago
Reply to  chris

That’s all good to know.

I’m the kind of nitwit who often worries far too much about what other people think of my actions and words, so I’d be afraid to make a $5-$10 (and admit to it) for fear that someone would turn around and accuse me of not caring enough about the game/genre whatever in question.

But like I said, I’m also not interested in a glorified preorder.

This is a problem I have on a more general scale. I’ve never backed a kickstarter, nor have I ever pledged on Patreon. But so many people I know (or at least encounter online) have done one or both, and that makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong.

That is to say, sometimes it makes me feel like I’m too much of a cheapskate or a freeloader, or that I don’t care about supporting independent art.

I struggle more than I would like to shake those feelings off.

pat
pat
1 month ago

the penny blood/ armed fantasia double kickstarter was announced between my writing this and posting. jay and i considered adding an editor’s note but we decided to address through comments instead so i am glad it came up. i should note i backed both games for basically the same reasons i describe in the post even though (unlike say eiyuden) i couldnt have named the individuals affiliated with either wild arms or shadow hearts prior to the campaign. i dont really have a view on a double kickstarter concept. seems kind of silly and over complicated, but whatever. my understanding is most pledges have been for both games, so maybe it is attracting “90s jrpg fans” more than fans of either specific series.

if i were to psychoanalyze what is going on in my head with kickstarters, i would say that because i lack much time to actually play games i cast about for other ways to enjoy them, and following some of these campaigns provides that. i sometimes enjoy the games themselves, but sometimes its just fun to get excited about something speculative.

i completely understand skepticism and cynicism on this topic. i do think there are cash grabs, and people that oversell their ability to deliver, and play up their affiliations with figures marginally attached to beloved series. i have been fortunate enough to avoid most of those, but i am also fortunate enough to have enough money that pledging to a kickstarter and following along with the campaign is by itself enough fun to be worth it to me. on top of that i do think it provides an avenue for the creation of some great games that wouldnt have otherwise existed. i am perfectly happy to be in the crowd taking that risk so these games get made and hopefully enjoyed more broadly.

jay
Admin
jay
1 month ago

While editing this Pat and I talked through a lot of the concepts included and others that didn’t make it into the post. One that I went on and on about was the idea of mid-tier stuff being the most appealing to me. It’s fun to support these dinosaurs remaking the things that made them famous, god knows I spent a lot of Shenmue 3, but stuff like Shadowrun, Darkest Dungeon, and Banner Saga are really the sweet spot to me. Not the projects by people who have never shipped a game, though I do wonder where Hollow Knight came from, as my impression is 90% of those don’t pan out. But give me a project by industry veterans who left (EA, Ubisoft, some other giant shitty company I don’t care about) after shipping a few games and if the concept looks cool, I will probably back it.