Kickstarter Adventure: Gearing into Overdrive, Threatening to Stall
Opinion & Special Features
Musings on the adventure genre, developer columns and other special features
Tim Schafer has created a monster.
No, not Glottis, Ripburger, or Meat Circus (though he created those too). I'm speaking, of course, of the Kickstarter phenomenon. Since Schafer announced his plans to create a new adventure game for a measly $300,000 (and another $100,000 to document the process on film) only to be overwhelmed with a staggering $3 million more than that, the bandwagon has quickly filled up with fellow design legends hopping aboard: Jane Jensen, Al Lowe, Tex Murphy's Chris Jones and Aaron Conners, and Space Quest's Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy have all emerged from publisher purgatory to launch their own fundraising campaigns. Surely this is the best thing to happen to the genre since the Golden Era of adventures, right?
Well, yes and no. Or at least yes and maybe. The jury is still out on the latter, both for developers and for gamers.
The "yes" needs no explanation. It is indeed a glorious triumph for the likes of Moebius, SpaceVenture, Project Fedora, and of course Tim's own Double Fine Adventure. With Leisure Suit Larry also set for a spiffy new HD remake, 2012 (or 2013, by the time any of these are finished) is shaping up to be the Year of Revival for the genre's brightest stars from years gone by. Plus the trickle-down effect has already benefited smaller indie projects like the promising Lilly Looking Through and Quest for Infamy with exposure they likely wouldn't have garnered before. On those merits alone, there is no downside. None. Kickstarter has already proven to be a miracle come true. Or at least, it's promised to be.
But this new crowd-sourcing reality is not without its challenges, pitfalls, and troubling uncertainty. For starters, in just a few short months it's become increasingly difficult to achieve even the baseline monetary goal. Developers saw Schafer's success and figured they could easily do the same. They were wrong, usually asking for more and always getting much less. In some cases, it was touch-and-go to the very final day. (And remember, with Kickstarter it's all-or-nothing. You meet your target or get bupkis.) Already there are obvious signs of fundraising fatigue. There's a reason gamers haven't been the primary source of pre-production income until now: we aren't rich. Now one campaign after another is asking us to push our support to the limit, as the very existence of each project may very well depend on it. So far, it's been enough. But many wallets are tapped out at this point, and future campaigns will find it even tougher to succeed. Some have already failed.
And while Schafer cruised by without even an idea in mind (the promise to document the entire procedure from concept to completion was a prescient masterstroke), other developers have had to work furiously to feed and fuel their pledge drives. Live chats, proof-of-concept demos, endless video updates, celebrity testimonials, the works. With game journalists having already approached a saturation point on fundraising news, campaigns are now fighting hard for every scrap of coverage (as indeed they should; worthy as the causes may be, the media is not a promotional marketing vehicle for cash-starved companies). I suspect the designers who have succeeded so far are not only grateful for the support they received, but relieved to be out of the life-sucking fundraising morass and into the "easy" task of simply making great games.
Why did it work so well for Schafer and not for any other adventure game legend? The most obvious answer is that he's Tim freaking Schafer. While Schafer's games haven't always been commercial successes, they've consistently been lauded for their creativity and bold visions in an industry largely reliant on the same old risk-averse formulas over and over again. And when it comes to adventure games, Schafer is virtually without peer, with a flawless record of masterpieces from Day of the Tentacle to Full Throttle to Grim Fandango. When Schafer announces he's going to make a new adventure, it's the closest thing there is to a sure bet, and the result reflected the public's confidence in his abilities. It didn't hurt that he's got Ron Gilbert pitching in, or that Schafer himself is a funny, charismatic guy who's clearly comfortable in the spotlight. That's all well and good for Double Fine, but it represents the first cautionary tale for every other developer, especially those considering a Kickstarter campaign: You are not Tim Schafer.
He was also the first. That simply can't be overstated. Oh sure, Kickstarter was around long before this, even successfully funding some adventures, but as the first high-profile adventure game developer to launch a campaign of his own, there was no way to predict the public euphoria that followed Schafer's announcement. Or duplicate it. Undoubtedly even Schafer himself couldn't repeat his initial success with a new campaign now. His immense cross-genre popularity and devout social media following combined to send immediate shockwaves through the gaming community. Media outlets ran with the completely unexpected story, and players everywhere quickly learned of the new venture and were suddenly confronted by an unprecedented opportunity: A new Tim Schafer adventure? That I can make happen with a donation? Where do I sign?!
But then the hoopla died down, as hoopla invariably does. Real money exchanged hands, and reality began to set in. Not that anyone regretted their support in hindsight necessarily, but surely many came to the realization that they couldn't afford to do that very often. And then the next handout was asked... and only partially answered. Then another, and that one refused. Then still another, and another, with no end in sight. Some have suggested a kind of coordination between developers to avoid overlap, but the very nature of independent operation makes this a practical impossibility. So how do backers decide now? By being selective. It's no longer enough to simply announce a game. Now you need to convince us. Reputation alone won't suffice. Vague plot details and concept sketches won't cut it. Personal video appeals aren't enough. Like Star Trek's Borg instantly adapting to the latest attack, what worked on Kickstarter before will no longer work ever again.
That's the next major hurdle for developers: As a financier, EA and UbiSoft ain't got nothin' on the picky Joe Q Public. There may be no one more supportive, but also no one more demanding than a fan. And it isn't just the money. Already we've seen public outcries about DRM, downloadable content, pitch video quality, lack of concrete design information, poor pledge rewards, and so on. Not without cause, either. Some developers have come to the table unprepared, clearly underestimating the suddenly-discriminating nature of a fickle target audience. If anyone thinks they can get away with LESS preparation than they'd need for formal publisher presentations, they're about to learn their lesson the hard way. Especially since this isn't an investment for players, but a donation – albeit a contribution that comes with predetermined perks, including a "free" copy of the game once released.
The fact that Kickstarter campaigns are ultimately glorified pre-order offers should also raise the red flag of caution. For crowd-sourcing to be anything other than a cyclical pattern of charity requests, these games will have to ultimately generate some sales. But to whom, when you've already pre-sold your game to your most devoted fanbase? The upside is, without publishers and retailers taking their huge cut of the finished pie, they won't need to sell nearly as many copies to turn a tidy profit. They will need to sell some, however, and it remains to be seen if the Kickstarter model adequately compensates for that. Then again, maybe a cyclical pattern is a viable new reality. It puts the pressure squarely on the developer to deliver a standout game on time and budget, but there's no better advertisement for your next campaign than the successful completion of your current one. Still, it's in everyone's best interest for developers to become self-sustaining through sales. It remains to be seen if that's possible.
There's probably hope in adventure circles that Kickstarter will cause an epiphany among neglectful publishers as well, awakening them to the abundant genre demand they never knew existed. I appreciate such optimism, but outside of Schafer's extraordinary total, I can't envision crowd-sourcing results having much effect. The campaign dollar figures are somewhat impressive by niche genre standards, but half a million is pocket change for big-budget productions. Besides, funds raised aren't the important figure anyway. A few $10,000 pledges do wonders for Kickstarter, but are meaningless to a publisher. The bottom line for them is sales, and the total combined number of backers for Moebius, Project Fedora, and SpaceVenture is less than 25,000. From a retail perspective, that's peanuts. Yes, there will be additional sales when the games are complete, but that is then and this is now. And for now, if I'm a publisher, I'm entirely unimpressed with how adventure games might pad my bottom line.
Having said that, I've learned never to underestimate a publisher's willingness to chase trends, however fleeting and short-sighted, so we may yet see a marginal influx of corporate interest in the genre. And we could certainly use the support, having had virtually no North American retail presence for many years now (a fact that's played a large if indirect part in the demise of previously stable European publishers in recent months). Activision is now acutely aware that its classic adventure properties have some ongoing value (which is still no assurance they'll do the right thing with them, as Sierra has already proved), and LucasArts already knew, but if other publishers are watching, they're no doubt far more impressed with Telltale's announcement of a million Walking Dead episodes sold than a few thousand vocal, self-sacrificing adventure diehards supporting their favourite franchises.
Perhaps it's enough to simply ride this initial wave of incoming adventure games and enjoy it while it lasts. But the developers themselves are already looking ahead. SpaceVenture's Crowe and Murphy have given up their previous jobs, throwing themselves full-time into the new project with an eye to ongoing game development. Tex Murphy's Jones and Conners have similarly announced their eagerness to continue the series beyond the next installment. Jensen sought support for her new Pinkerton Road studio itself, raising funds for multiple games to be developed during a one year period. Clearly to them this return to the genre is no one-off experiment, but merely the start of a long-term plan. To us that's just the icing on the cake at this point, but to those involved it's a big gamble; their very livelihoods depend on it. Has Kickstarter created an illusion of sustainable success that will cost them down the line?
But hey, that's their problem, right? As fans and gamers we can simply sit back and bask in the glory of new adventure games from our favourite designers. If it's just one game apiece, at least we'll have enjoyed a mini-renaissance we once never thought possible... At least, if we get the games, and if they're any good, of course. Therein lies the rub, and it's crucial to remember: Kickstarter comes with no guarantees. Blinded by nostalgia, it's easy to believe that these genre greats will once again deliver without skipping a beat. But it's a leap of faith to assume that what was true 15-20 years ago will still be true today. Times have changed, technology has changed, expectations have changed, we have changed. So now the challenge for developers, as Aaron Conners so eloquently stated, is not to "give them just the experience they had... we need to give them the experience they remember."
That's a tall order in the best of circumstances, and only Schafer will be creating a new adventure game under the best of circumstances. It cost four million dollars to make Pandora Directive in 1996, and the relatively small Kickstarter budgets are exceedingly tight in comparison. Half a million may have stretched a long way once, but it no longer does so today – although technology is an obvious exception to that rule, with improved tools and vastly cheaper equipment now than in the genre's heyday, when image scanners cost as much as cars. But those tools still need to be learned, and with artists, actors, musicians, film crews, and programmers to pay, that once-juicy fundraising total can start to dwindle fast. Not that they'll ever have that amount to spend in the first place. After Kickstarter takes its 5%, Amazon scoops another 3-5%, and the government swoops in for its income tax grab, each game's finances are sorely depleted from the start. And someone needs to pay for all those fancy upper tier rewards, from boxed games to buckazoids; from t-shirts to fedoras, plus shipping on top of that. Ca-ching!
As the saying goes, time is money – especially when it's someone else's money. You'd think that being freed from publisher-driven deadline tyranny would be a liberating thing for indie developers. Certainly the developers think so. Mark Crowe commented on the SpaceVenture timeline by saying, "Ultimately we want to deliver the best game we can, and that’s the beauty of the fan-funded thing; we don’t feel the pressure of publisher deadlines." He's right, of course, except for one thing: there's no more irritable a group than gamers angry about missed release dates. And that's for games they have no claim to, being merely passive bystanders anxious to play! Imagine the hue and cry when the games they've actually helped fund are pushed back and delayed. Because we all know they will; games always do, particularly for small-team indies that can't absorb any setbacks without seriously infringing on the production cycle.
The true diehards will patiently wait as long as it takes, but the more mercenary backers will soon begin demanding frequent, informative updates and iron-clad target dates. And as development progresses, they'll invariably become more vocal about feedback being responded to and accepted, arguing ever more vigorously for their own personal agendas. (This isn't a guess; it happens already.) Publishers may be greedy, money-grubbing corporate entities, but at least their goals are single-minded in purpose. Kickstarter developers will soon find themselves accountable to thousands of people, many of which feel they're owed direct input into the production process, even if only to complain. Crowd-sourcing may start to feel like mob-sourcing, and an aura of negativity could well threaten to consume any project that lags behind.
No one knows this better than Jane Jensen, whose latest full-scale adventure took a staggering seven years to complete. Due entirely to circumstances beyond her control, "Project Jane J" went through multiple publishers and developers before Gray Matter finally reached players long since disillusioned by the wait, or simply disappointed that the game failed to live up to so many years of anticipation (as any game inevitably would). Given her casual game experience and close working ties with her outsourced Euro developer, the same thing is unlikely to happen to Moebius, but woe betide the project if it starts to take too long. Whoever coined the phrase "patience is its own reward" clearly isn't an adventure gamer.
Just ask Heather Logas, a former Telltale employee who raised funds for her own experimental adventure called Before You Close Your Eyes back in 2010. Legitimate life issues pushed her timetable back significantly, and though Logas maintains that the game is still ongoing, her lack of firm deadline has caused some to begin doubting the project's viability overall. Vince Twelve's Resonance was partly funded through another early fundraising campaign (albeit for a laughably small amount), and not only did backers have to twiddle their thumbs for several years, but even the lowest pledge tier ended up being more than the price of the finished game. This isn't a criticism of either developer, merely a fact of life: If you're contributing money for an adventure game, be prepared to wait, wait, and wait some more – all the while hoping for the best, as hope is all you can do.
I'm certainly not suggesting that any adventure game developers will take the money and run. But they could take the money and see it run out before the game is done (especially if they didn't adequately plan for the incidental campaign expenses beforehand). If that happens, we might be out of luck. There's really no recourse for lost Kickstarter donations, even if the project never comes to fruition – or at least, it's presently unclear how such restitution would occur. That's the gamble we are taking each time we pledge. Or perhaps we'll simply get a scaled-down, lesser-quality product instead of the highly-polished, content-rich adventure we're currently being promised. When budgets run out, games get fast-tracked to release – missing features, cut corners, and rampant bugs be damned. That prospect isn't nearly as unlikely, and really isn't any different than the original publisher scenario we all hoped to avoid.
Assuming all goes well (remembering what they say about assumptions), it's money well spent. For the lower tier amounts, anyway. But I must say, I've witnessed a somewhat alarming tendency among the most devout followers to up, re-up, and re-re-up their pledge totals every time a new reward is offered, or simply in an effort to further support the cause. I love this passion and energy (as I'm sure the developers do). Yet I worry. With no cash actually being paid until the end of each campaign, there's an element of unreality to it all, as if we're playing with Monopoly money. And that's hardly a stretch. There's a reason so many people are maxed out on their credit cards: it's "free" money until it's time to pay the piper. There's a reason casinos make you buy tokens; it's no longer your own money you're throwing away, but a game you're playing with plastic chips. I wonder if pledging to Kickstarter can be a bit like auction bidding, where the competition and adrenaline win out over common sense and discretion. Far be it from me to advise anyone how to spend their hard-earned money. But I'd be remiss not to issue a warning against getting caught up in the heat of the spend-more moment.
If all this sounds overly negative, I really don't mean to be a killjoy. Like I said, in some ways Kickstarter appears to be a dream come true. I've personally pledged to most new adventure campaigns, so I'm not merely criticizing from the sidelines. Rather, because I'm in the crowd that's "sourcing" these games, I can feel the excitement, the temptation, even the danger myself, and simply want to make sure that the latter isn't swept under the rug of unbridled optimism. Similarly, it's because I know quite a few developers that I want them all to look before they leap, and not merely rush headlong towards a runaway bandwagon for fear of being left behind. If everyone keeps their heads, these next couple of years could indeed be a remarkable stretch, the likes of which the genre hasn't seen for more than a decade. But let's do this thing with eyes wide open.
Ideally, Kickstarter will prove to be the one-time-only launch pad for our favourite developers (and promising newcomers with modest goals) to return to the genre they love, creating games that meet all of our wildest expectations and sell enough for self-sufficiency beyond that. But developers must be prepared for the possibility of campaign failure, unforeseen production limitations, and the presence of demanding public "investors" dogging their output every step of the way. Gamers, meanwhile, should temper their enthusiasm with the understanding that our contributions offer us no assurances whatsoever, pledges really do cost money at campaign's end, and this may just be the start of a perpetual cycle of fundraising. Oh, and it isn't 1992 anymore. It's 2012, and though it's certainly an exciting time, let's all treat this like the real-life adventure it is – none of us having any idea exactly where it will lead.