For those not familiar with the reference in the title this week, this past month saw the (eventual) release of Mighty No. 9, the (supposedly) independently backed video game from Keiji Inafune, (allegedly) the mind behind the iconic Mega Man franchise, which Mighty No. 9 was (theoretically) meant to be a spiritual successor to.
And, if you just caught all of the qualifying clauses I’ve had to squeeze into parentheses there, you’re probably able to guess how well it’s all turned out. Speaking as an outside observer with absolutely no stake in the game’s success or failure, Mighty No. 9 is already perhaps the most critically observed garbage fire of a disaster that gaming has seen in a while. Not the worst game in the world by a long stretch, but by far the most disappointing (relative to expectations) in this generation or the last. The inequities of the project are almost too many to count, from the delays and ludicrous over-promising that started it off, to the painful mishandling of the PR post-release, which culminated with Inafune, or more accurately his translator, telling angry fans that a rubbish game many of them had invested money in was “better than nothing”.
For a comprehensive break-down of the malaise which seems to have hung over every step of Mighty No. 9’s conception, there are plenty of other articles to go and read already. I’m more interested in the broader discussion this latest mess had added to, in regards to the reputation of crowdfunding both in gaming and beyond.
For the uninitiated, ‘crowdfunding’ is the general term given to the purpose of websites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, GoFundMe etc. The basic idea is: A person(s) starts a page on one of these websites asking for a target of financial backing to be met to deliver a promised outcome (usually, but not always, an entertainment product of some kind). Then, individuals who like the sound of your proposal donate whatever amount they see fit, though they may be tempted to donate higher amounts for exclusive backer bonuses. It’s a system of mass online patronage, and has been used for everything from making movies and video-games, to funding surgeries, to one guy getting over $55,000 to make a potato salad… it’s a long story.
The two big advantages of crowdfunding, in theory, are that it democratises investment and encourages accountability to the consumer. Normally, for a film or videogame to get made at the big-budget level, financial backing must be secured from a big studio/publisher, and these corporations have a not-entirely-unfair reputation for being cold, faceless monoliths of capitalism, answerable only to their shareholders and with absolutely zero interest in producing good art. The overabundance of sequels, remakes, reboots, and the plain old homogenisation of genres are all symptoms of the investors behind the entertainment business refusing to put their money on anything they can’t be convinced is guaranteed to turn a profit for them. Worse, the spread of microtransactions and other aggressive means of nickel-and-diming players for extra content in already expensive games are almost always the fault of greedy publishers trying to squeeze every last drop of cash out of their consumer base that they possibly can.
As much as I love being a gamer, being a consumer in the video game industry can often make me feel like a cow hooked up to an industrial milking machine, so the idea of crowdfunding on principle appeals to me. The idea that developers, the people who actually make the games and appreciate them as an art form, can go to The People and ask for their help to deliver a passion project the fat cats would otherwise turn down sounds attractive, both as a way to get great games, and as a way to stick two fingers up at corporations like EA, Ubisoft and Activision.
The trouble, however, comes with the ‘accountability’ part. Even though crowdfunded games ask potential customers not just to buy the finished product, but to invest money in the product getting made in the first place, in practice the, erm… practice, has not encouraged accountability to the consumer at all. It seems, for every Kickstarter success story, there’s a horror story as well. Projects falling though, and taking thousands of dollars of investors’ money with them, thanks to poor planning, a lack of oversight, or plain old inflated expectations. Even worse are the scam artists and asset-flippers, particularly in the early-access racket (where investors pay to be play-testers of unfinished games in order to drum up the necessary capital to get them finished) who have no intention of delivering a quality product in the first place, and will take your money and run. When a project funded through traditional means is a dud, the worst that usually happens is a blip on a publishers profit and loss accounts. When a crowdfunded project suffers the same fate, individual fans with average incomes can lose hundreds or thousands, if they’d chosen to ante-up for something they felt passionate about.
For every trend, there are people who want to see that trend fail, either to feel validated about having not believed in it, or because it makes for easy pickings to write think-pieces about on the internet for views (Hi there!). In any case, Mighty No. 9 is the latest and greatest example of crowdfunding failing the people who believe in it, and failing miserably, which is causing many to question whether the idea is just another trend to be abandoned.
I, for one, don’t want to see people turn their backs on crowdfunding en-masse. I do, however, think we as consumers need to re-evaluate how we approach it.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a project identical to Mighty No. 9 in almost every respect. The pitch is for a video-game, another 2D platformer, meant as a spiritual successor to a Golden Age classic (in this case Castlevania: Symphony of the Night), put forth by the father of said classic, after he grew tired of the mainstream industries assertions that the games he wanted to make weren’t profitable any more.
The difference, it seems, is competence. While the finished product isn’t out yet, a beta for Bloodstained was released only days after Mighty No. 9, and is currently being received very positively by its Kickstarter backers. All the way up until now Koji Igurashi (the creator of both Castlevania and Bloodstained) has been proving himself everything that Inafune wasn’t; a competent, passionate artist who has been realistic and open with fans from the start, and as a result his project hasn’t eaten away at the fan’s expectations with constant delays, downgrades, and worrying trends.
While the proof will ultimately be in the pudding, I’d hold Bloodstained and plenty of others like it, up as examples of why crowdfunding as an idea is still worth defending. However, if we want to better predict the difference between a success and a failure with two so outwardly similar case studies, we as consumers are going to have to start thinking a little less like wide-eyed fans, and a little more like hard-nosed investors. Before we put up money that, one way or another, we will never see again for the sake of an artist’s vision, we need to take a very hard look at what we’re being offered. We need to ask ourselves if what’s being promised really sounds achievable; if the person offering it has any credibility; and if the amount they’re asking for doesn’t sound like they’re taking the piss.
In short, we need to start thinking a little (just a little) more like the stingy fat cats at EA we all hate so much, and that may in turn give us just a little more sympathy towards their position, when we consider that they as investors are asked to contribute tens of millions. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still greedy bastards, but they wouldn’t have got where they are by blowing all their money on pipe-dreams.
We as fans absolutely should still want to support projects we feel passionate about, from artists we respect, but it wouldn’t hurt us to sprinkle our optimism with a little cynicism, because not everybody who asks us for money is going to have good intentions. It won’t always protect us, but it’s a good place to start.
…That was this week’s OpinionatedDavid!!! Check back tomorrow for a new VuePoint article!!!