The Dependence of Independence?

Kickstarting a moan…

Something occurred to me this morning.

I am of course a big believer in new and varied games. Part of the joy of this is seeing what people come up with; Rogue Legacy has put a big smile on my face lately, and I still regularly boot up things like Legend of Grimrock and Dungeons of Dredmor. I love that some genres are being explored, even bettered by the interaction of people independent of big publishing houses and development studios because these are people who are risking everything they have in order to get that foot in the door as it were. Also, at a time when the big new commercial release is frankly the worst game in at least a decade, it offers a cheap example of how bloated and messy some of the big names can be.

The thing is, I was looking at the Early Access thing on Steam; largely by way of the Double Fine Adventure, who via multiple websites (and a strangely worded email I got later) had admitted that they were kind of running out of money on the project that originally asked for a mere $400,000, and ended up raising over $3 million.

I sat there, looking at the early access, when something dawned on me. When you run out of money in the traditional scene, obviously there’s a rush to seek more funding some some undisclosed source. Not that this always happens; plugs can be pulled for a myriad of reasons, money often seems to be a secondary concern in the majority of cases, but generally speaking monetary funds are rarely a massive concern. For Tim Schafer and the game we now call Broken Age, running out of funds is a big problem. Since this was Kickstarted, it is independent of the usual commercial scene, and therefore it is unlikely that they could seek funds from more traditional sources without dramatically compromising on the vision that people bought into. It would look like a disaster, selling out of the highest standard and it’s a stance Tim Schafer would likely never be able to recover from.

And yet, it needs more money. So it seems they’re looking at Steam’s “Early Access” in order to sell the game to people, in a ‘beta’ state, with the promise that the remaining last half of the game would be finished by some time in the middle of next year. It’s looking to sell the game in an unfinished state so that it can secure more funding from the general public.

In effect, in being independently funded by us, the gamers, it has become pretty much entirely dependent on us to fund it.

The irony of this is not lost on me; the whole point of going independent is to be free of the dependency and constraints of the typical means of working in the industry; to go it alone and brave the wilds with little in your pocket but a Swiss Army Knife and a little change. But the likes of Tim Schafer obviously don’t do things by halves; they have huge visions and grand plans, and unfortunately not all of these things go to plan, and when they do they can be quite costly. So that little change in their back pocket is being used to dial home and ask to be picked up; except it is us, the gaming community, it is asking for that assistance. It has simply switched dependency from one extreme to another, as publishers depend on us to buy their products too; and most of the people who have paid for the game are likely not willing (or able) to part with any more without some promises and assurances.

It will be interesting to see how the Early Access idea goes; Broken Age is not the only project, oh no.

A look through the games asking for our help in funding through Early Access cover a lot of bases. One game called Kenshi caught my eye; a sort of strategic MMO hybrid, where effort brings reward. Which is a wonderful concept but it left me with more questions than answers, especially considering games largely based on the player vs. player dynamic struggle with balance and griefing in equal measure. You have a game based on a novel called Archeblade, which looks rather interesting but again, it leaves more questions than it answers. In fact, most if not all the games listed on the Early Access are baffling to me; there’s promise, but they are asking me to part with money before the product is finished. And that requires some salesmanship, which few of them have.

Indeed, part of the problem is with so many wonderful games coming out right now (both budget and full-priced), alongside the temptations of the almighty Steam Sale oh dear god my wallet is shaking in fear, the question that pops immediately into my head is, “Why would I want to invest in this?”

The thing is this; if I invested money in every game that looked good in theory and had “potential”, I’d be raiding bins for food.

Most ideas look good on paper and most games sound fine in theory; I’m sure a game as awful as Ride to Hell: Retribution sounded fantastic when they discussed it (more on this abomination of a video game tomorrow!), but the reality is very different. The reality for most games tends to be very different from the concept; which makes investment in a game before its finished seem quite a dangerous prospect to my mind. When there is no way to guarantee the overall quality of a product, and at times no way to be sure whether the thing that annoys you most will ever be fixed, early adoption can be a dangerous game. Those of us who buy consoles know the perils of early adoption; high failure rates, slow dribble of quality content, regular firmware patching, more downtime than you’d often like and the constant jeering of people who think you bought too early. You have to also accept that the price to tempt people through the door later may be less than what you paid for it in the first place; despite promises of early access being cheaper, I assume many of these multiplayer strategy games will end up free to play, or worse.

And it’s something we need to keep an eye on; there’s a dangerous precedent beginning to be set. Peter Molyneux began – or perhaps emphasised – this during the Curiosity thing, when he hinted that he may need more money to pay for some store so he could sell stuff to people directly through the app. Yup, Molyneux wanted money from the public so he could start up a store in the app so he could get more money from them. If that sounds a little disingenuous of me, then I apologise. I completely understand his reasoning and his logic. But that doesn’t make it any less startling or any less relevant to the issue at hand. He had to come to us for funding to make something so he could sell more stuff to us. That’s the core logic at work.

We, the gaming community, can only give so much goodwill to the likes of Peter Molyneux and Tim Schafer (and I never thought I’d put those two names side by side in this context. I feel dirty…). There’s only so much we can give. For many of us, we’ve given what we can and what we think things are worth; and we’re waiting for a return on our investments. We’re waiting for the projects, and it seems a fair few of them are simply running themselves dry in the process. That is alarming and troubling to me; and a clear sign that Kickstarter and Early Access may not be the solutions many want them to be, but simply a distraction from a far deeper-rooted ailment; making games of such a standard is expensive. Perhaps… perhaps too expensive?

I personally think it’s very unfair to ask the gaming landscape, who may already have “pre-ordered” the game, for more funding – directly or alluding towards it. And if your whole schtick is to self-fund or crowdsource entirely, running out of money is a terrible reflection on an individuals business acumen. At that point, someone needs to stop and ask where all the money went; if the game got too ambitious, then that shouldn’t be our problem to solve. I understand things can run over budget, but there’s a really uncomfortable sensation at the prospect that in asking us for funding initially, that it will be us to whom they turn to in this, their hour of need. In many cases, we’ve seen little and played nothing. They are running on trust, and trust alone, and trust can only go so far until you stop them and say, “Right, put up or shut up.”

I am prepared to write off my investment of various crowdfunded projects. I already have a feeling the Ouya is going to be little more than a pretty paperweight at this rate; I loathe the concept of pushing emulation on it as any kind of positive because to me, it’s abhorrent and against what I funded it for. You don’t upend the gaming market by stealing from it, and you don’t force things to sideloading – it just looks dodgy for some reason. Likewise, I expected more of Mr. Schafer. I naively trusted that raising so much money – $3.3 million, when they were asking for a mere $400k – would ensure no funding issues whatsoever down the road. Clearly, my mistake, and one from which I will learn for the next big idea that someone wants to sell to me.

I’ve tried to avoid too many “spoilers”. Clearly this is a mistake on my part as well.

I want to help people who have great ideas. But I think I am going to need something more than words and pictures. And I don’t want to be depended on should the project run into problems down the road somewhat. You have already got my money; in some cases, a large chunk of it. I want to feel that whoever has that money is someone who I can trust to deliver a quality product at the end, and more and more I am beginning to realise that you can’t always expect that in this day and age. More and more, I’m realising that there are far too many games out there, far too many people clamouring for my bank details, that I no longer know how to sift the wheat from the chaff. Every day, I go to gaming websites and there’s at least one article of a title someone is crowdfunding in some capacity; be it some guys who made a game in the 80’s, or the chap who made the Alice games (American McGee, who wants to make a game called Ozombie. Which exists as a film, and it’s one of the worst films ever made too… great start!). More and more people want me to part with my cash. More people are trying to break free; and by breaking free, they want our money in order to enable this detachment, this freedom, this independence.

The surprising reality for me is that independence from the big publishers and studios just means a larger dependence on us, the gaming community, to breach the gap.

And it’s a dependence we need to be careful of giving them too much reliance on. Because money is finite; just as trust and goodwill are. Largely everyone who really wants a game, probably already bought it. And sure, they might be able to score some new sales; but will they be in that kind of volume to finish development? I’m kind of doubting it. I just don’t know how much can be expected of people. When a lot of money is raised, sometimes you need to be prepared for the realisation that that might be your ENTIRE audience. I’m not sure in some cases this idea has quite sunk in yet. That really, the crowdfunding might eventually be all the market you have, and it’ll be if not impossible then extremely hard to convince others outside the sphere of getting on board; either because it’s not the genre they enjoy, or simply a sense of fostered mistrust.

We are not the solution to the funding problem. At the end of the day, we’ve already paid for a product and it makes me uneasy to think my money may not have helped do much at all. And every delay and every indication that funding is being either wasted or diverted into something that seems quite unnecessary just further adds to that alienation, that fostering of mistrust in people that makes them ask, “Where is our money going, exactly?” I am also wondering if the idea of a “cheaper game if you buy early” is a shrewd business move either. Sounds great to the community; but that’s still proportionally less money going into the coffers as a result, usually at a time when every single penny counts.

I don’t mind cuts either; I am reminded that Vagrant Story saw a good half of the game cut and abandoned to keep the title on budget and on schedule. Sometimes you can make the very best from a seemingly bad situation; Vagrant Story did not feel like half a game to me. It was bigger, bolder and brighter than any game of the era, and one that still holds up remarkably well today (aside controller confusion which is a modern convenience issue rather than an old oversight). I sometimes wonder what would have happened if they delayed Vagrant Story a year and we got the full title. Would it have held up to scrutiny still? Or would it have looked like a bloated project with more ambition than sense?

Still, something doesn’t sit right with me. A business that can’t pay its way will go bankrupt – that’s the natural order. A project that runs out of money doesn’t get finished. The only difference here is that it’s largely our money on the line in many of these cases. The ideal is we have a vested interest in making sure the product gets to market. Which is a noble endeavour; but I don’t think the back alleys we end up going down will really awe us either. People are not used to seeing the dark underbelly, and some of these issues – commonplace in making videogames in a modern market – wouldn’t be nearly as exposed as they are beginning to seem now. Seeing the machinations at work isn’t always pretty; the artform is ensuring that you don’t inadvertently scare people in the process of delivering news that may not be what people want to hear at any given time. Or give the press more ammunition than they perhaps would otherwise get; the media thrives on negativity, after all, as it generates page hits and therefore advertising revenue. Give them an inch and watch them run a marathon.

Truth is I am far more likely to cut my losses and walk away than invest my money in a project that is running into trouble. There will be other games and other projects that amuse and delight, and I will somewhat forget about some of these projects until such a time as I end up with the finished result. Still, all this said, much of this new wave of crowdsourced money and Early Access funds are highly experimental and to expect it all to be plain sailing is a daft thing. When you’re blazing a new trail of how to do things, it won’t always be smooth or look pretty. Still, as much as I enjoy keeping tabs on some of these projects, I can’t help but wonder if some of them will end up disappointing in some capacity and it makes me a little nervous. I hope I am wrong. I really do. But I can’t quite shake that sense of foreboding.

In the words of a Momus song; “I want you, but I don’t need you…”

Post edited, changed the end segment as I want to be optimistic as well. I am aware a lot of this is experimental.
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