Kickstarter editorial

Kickstarter Adventure: Gearing into Overdrive, Threatening to Stall

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. 

Continued on the next page...

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Jack Allin
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