Where Old-School Adventure Games Are the New AAA
A look at the slow start for Republique and how Kickstarter has evolved into the game industry's teeny tiny, topsy-turvy, alternate-universe, goatee-wearing twin.
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When Double Fine Productions raised $3.3 million through Kickstarter to make an old-school adventure game, there were industry watchers hoping that crowdfunding would turn the gaming industry on its head. And in one small way, that's exactly what has happened. Kickstarter is a funhouse mirror of the real game industry, where niche projects like old-school adventure games are safe bets and broad-appeal iOS games struggle for funding.
Just look at the developers and projects that have been getting all the attention (and funding) of late. There's Interplay founder Brian Fargo, who has raised $2.4 million (and counting) to make a sequel to the seminal 1988 PC role-playing game Wasteland. And Shadowrun creator Jordan Weisman, whose push to bring the pen-and-paper RPG back to the world of video games has attracted more than $900,000 in support about halfway through its pledge drive. More recently, Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe has brought in more than $300,000 to remake his juvenile-humored graphic adventure, while Gabriel Knight designer Jane Jensen has topped $150,000 in support for her old-school adventure game studio. Those last two titles are just over halfway to their goals, but both have weeks remaining to raise the rest of their money.
Notice a trend there? Those are all developers with a decent amount of name recognition pitching projects of a known series or type of game, so naturally they're going to garner more attention, tweets, and headlines on sites like this one. But it's not just about who's trying to raise the money; it's also about who's giving it out. All of the projects mentioned above have a definite nostalgic component--they're spiritual successors to games that were targeted at adult audiences in the '80s and '90s--so backers of those projects are likely to be at least in their thirties. At the risk of stating the obvious (or at least the expected), the latest US Census Bureau statistics show the average income steadily increasing for every age bracket, from under $14,000 for those aged 15-24 to a peak of just under $50,000 for those aged 55-59. In short, older people make more money, and are more likely to have spare disposable income to commit toward a theoretical project that won't yield any sort of payoff for months or years. As a result, these nostalgia-fueled, feel-good games get funded, especially when the projects in question were unlikely to receive a reboot without going through the same genre sausage grinder that converted Syndicate and XCOM to first-person shooters.
Ultimately, people aren't much different from publishers when it comes to funding games. They want a safe bet.
But what about projects aimed at broader audiences? On the surface, Camouflaj's Republique seems like it should have a broad audience compared to those of the aforementioned successful Kickstarter projects. It's an iOS stealth action game from the new studio of Ryan Payton, who built his name as the English-speaking face of Metal Gear Solid 4 and worked for a time on Halo 4. (Payton calls himself the game's former director; Microsoft called him its narrative designer.) One of Payton's stated goals with Republique is to make a AAA game for mobile devices. Between the developer's past projects, the type of game, the platform, and the goal, Republique is clearly targeting a broad group of gamers.
Despite that, the support for Republique hasn't been quite so broad. Double Fine Adventure hit its $400,000 goal in eight hours. Shadowrun Returns met the same goal in 28 hours. Wasteland 2 was funded beyond its $900,000 target in just two days. Three days after Payton launched his own Kickstarter, the iOS stealth action game with mo-cap animation, professional voice work, and a slick pitch video has garnered $63,000 in funding (despite one backer giving the project $7,500). It still has 28 days to get the rest of the proposed $500,000 funding target, but there's a clear disparity in the level of crowdfunding support here.
Ultimately, people aren't much different from publishers when it comes to funding games. They want a safe bet. They want a developer with a proven track record. They want the game to be a shiny new version of something they already know. The big difference is that a gamer funds projects he or she would play, while publishers fund projects they think lots of other people would play. And this makes Kickstarter a downsized Bizarro model of the game industry where old-school adventure games are the AAA titles that command all the attention and most of the funding.
That's not to say original, innovative projects from upstart developers are doomed on Kickstarter. They just usually set their sights lower to succeed. Side-scrolling shooter College-Ruled Universe was funded with a $6,000 goal. The iOS action game Outreach was funded for $2,500. The science-heavy, evolution-focused Bacillus attracted $4,300 in funding, nearly tripling its modest goal of $1,500. Happily, some of these projects will far outstrip their goals, such as space exploration Rogue-like FTL: Faster Than Light, which put the marker at $10,000 but blew that away with a total of $200,000. However, FTL is a clear exception to the rule, as not every Kickstarter project can boast an honorable mention for the Independent Games Festival Seumas McNally grand prize.
All this could change next year as soon as one of these adventure games goes over budget, gets delayed, or disappoints its provably passionate base of backers. But for now, Kickstarter appears to be first and foremost the home of the retro renaissance, a place for established developers to convert fan loyalty into cold hard cash, and an avenue for older gamers to get what their younger counterparts have been treated to for years: more of the same.