Sunday, November 11, 2012

"Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home"

Another of the myriad of games attempting to raise capital on Kickstarter (and other sites of the same ilk) got me thinking about this today, which was basically how the rise of crowdsourced games is changing the traditional developer / publisher model which is so prevalent in the gaming industry.  It's taking aim particularly at the big hitters: Activision, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft et al.

For some time now the big publishers have been steadily moving away from games without a number in their title, or "higher risk" games which may not have an instant demographic available to sell to or be able to be pigeonholed as effectively as a publisher would like.  What they want is to find a popular franchise and then release new games in that franchise every 12 - 24 months ad nauseam, letting the market become flooded with so many games in that genre that it eventually becomes oversaturated, people stop buying them and the publisher then has to find a new franchise to move on to.  You have probably already thought of at least three whilst you were reading this sentence, but here's a fun list in no particular order: Halo, Call of Duty, Modern Warfare, Assassin's Creed, Final Fantasy and Resident Evil.  Some of these are earlier in the process (still making solid titles in the series), some are later (oh my god if I see another X game I will smother a small lemur to death and put it on Youtube), but they all seem to follow the same basic pattern.

Stage left, enter sites such as Kickstarter, which allow game developers to raise capital to develop a game by bypassing the traditional model and not having to dilute their aims or be beholden to someone else's timetable as a result.  The big one that started this off was Tim Schaffer's attempt to create a traditional PC point-and-click adventure game, in the spirit of Monkey Island which he worked on previously, way back when.  Point-and-click PC games, while all the rage around fifteen years ago (the aforementioned Monkey Island, plus Discworld, Loom, Full Throttle, Syberia, Dreamfall, etc.) have fallen out of favour with PC publishers, and the chances of a developer obtaining funding for one in this day and age seemed remote.  Following the modest success of Psychonauts (a tremendous game, pick it up if you haven't already; $10 on Steam and worth every penny) Schaffer looked into creating an oldskool PC adventure game without the hassles of needing to kowtow to a publisher.  His company, Double Fine, dipped a toe in the water and put up a proposal on Kickstarter to attempt to raise $400,000 to fund the game.  By the end of the fundraising period Schaffer had instead raised over eight times that amount, coming in at just over $3.3m.  Suddenly the big publishers had reason to worry; if this became mainstream then their whole raison d'ĂȘtre would be called into question.  Surely though this was a one-off by someone whose personality had attracted most of those crowdfunded donations in the first place?  In a word: no.

Several other developers, some big, some small, have decided to get in on the Kickstarter action.  Obsidian sought $1.1m and actually raised almost $4m for Project Eternity, a new isometric RPG; Uber Entertainment sought $900,000 and raised over $2.2m for their proposed RTS Planetary Annihilation; the list goes on and on and on and on (a new Broken Sword game; two Shadowrun games; a new game in the Wasteland series).  It's such a diverse mix of either sequels or reboots of original games, as well as brand new original titles, that it would be enough to bring a tear to my eye if I weren't such a cynical bastard.

This brings me to the Kickstarter that I became aware of just a few days ago, by legendary (and British!) game developer Chris Roberts.  If you're over 30 then there's a good chance you have at least heard of, if not played, some of his previous games, such as Wing Commander, Privateer, and my particular favourite, Freelancer.  His disillusion with the traditional developer / publisher model over what happened with Freelancer in the early 2000s (our old friend Microsoft being the publisher in question that time around) led to a self-imposed ten year exile from the gaming industry which he has now ended with a bang, and is choosing to crowdsource his next game, entitled Star Citizen, through his new company Cloud Imperium Games.

To say I am excited about this is an understatement, since I was a massive fan of the original Freelancer and left thinking what could have been had Microsoft given it more support and a sequel as it richly deserved.  Instead the game was left to languish and die when it could have been so much more, and Chris Roberts departed the industry for a decade as a result.

Star Citizen looks set to be the best of both worlds: a Wing Commander-style single-player militaristic campaign (dubbed Squadron 42), coupled with a persistent universe multiplayer where you can do whatever you want.  Trading?  Check.  Mercenary?  Check.  Explorer?  Check.  This is the part that gets me happy in the way that only the thought of Megan Fox could previously.

Chris Roberts has his own site for the proposed game where you can donate directly, or they also have a Kickstarter page set up which is essentially the same information in a different place.  I have embedded below the eleven minute video of Chris Roberts discussing the proposed game, which already contains a generous amount of concept art and real rendering which he had mocked up for this presentation.

To which my only reaction could be:

As of the time of writing he has exceeded his initial goals and is well into the "stretch" (optional) goals.  He sought $2m and so far has raised a combined total (his own site + Kickstarter) of almost $3.3m with seven days remaining in the funding cycle.  At this rate it looks a good bet that he will end up breaking $4m and possibly more.

My own enthusiasm for this project aside, crowdsourcing is becoming an important part of the gaming landscape, only nine months after it was first used.  Tim Schaffer blazed that trail and showed that there was pent-up demand out there that was not being satisfied by the established model, and since then it's been game after game after game hitting the crowdsource highway.  Whilst this is not going to make the traditional game publishing paradigm obsolete overnight, it should give the big players significant pause for thought at how easily they can be marginalised by a sufficient amount of money.  This is something that I think we are going to see more and more of as time goes on.

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