Crowded Out: 2013 was the year the masses ruled
It no longer grabs the headlines it once did, but crowd funding showed in 2013 that it will be a powerful force in games for many years to come
What's the most exciting thing that has happened to games during 2013? There are lots of candidates, all of them equally valid depending on your perspective and personal interests. The launch of new console hardware, perhaps; or the continuing meteoric rise of tablet and smartphone gaming. The deluge of microconsoles perhaps, none terribly successful but their very profusion pointing the way to the future ubiquity of game hardware (maybe). Oculus Rift, the really rather effective realisation of so many virtual reality fantasies; perhaps even Google Glass, which could open a doorway to new kinds of play if it doesn't fall victim to a social backlash before it even gets off the ground.
"It removes one of the most infuriating and ridiculous barriers in the creative industry - the financial middlemen who must be convinced of the market value of a creative idea"
For myself, forced to pick a single thing, I'd probably go with the bedding in of crowd funding as "part of the furniture" of the games business - indeed, of creative businesses in general. 2012 may have been the year when crowdfunding captured all the headlines, but in 2013 we started to see the wheels turning - projects completed, projects underway, projects stalled, projects failing.
After the initial hype, the reality of what it means for a wide group of interested individuals to fund a creative endeavour has bedded in. There has been disappointment, certainly, and some even bigger disappointments will probably follow down the line - but this is a learning process for creators and funders alike, and the lessons being learned are incredibly valuable. Why is crowdfunding still so exciting, despite all the hiccups? Because, quite simply, it removes one of the most infuriating and ridiculous barriers in the creative industry - the financial middlemen who must be convinced of the market value of a creative idea before they will fund it to completion.
In theory, this is not a terrible idea, even acting as a useful filter of quality in some instances - and in practice, it will continue to be how a great deal of creative work is funded. However, these gatekeepers have also slammed down the door on a vast, uncounted number of perfectly valid projects - labours of love or wonderful ideas which have been rejected because they don't conform to a financier's specific notion of what's popular in the market, or because their commercial potential, while significant, is overshadowed by another more overtly commercial project.
In this way, we've lost not only countless games but entire genres. Adventure games are the most often lamented, having disappeared almost entirely in the 1990s, though I'd contend that the best features of the adventure genre were moulded into other game genres, survival horror being a key one, while the worst features of adventures really ought to stay dead - but I know the genre has plenty of hardcore fans who would probably do something awful to me for such blasphemy, perhaps even something as awful as making me play a load of old adventure games. Other genres, too, have declined to a huge degree, while whole swathes of game themes or approaches are simply deemed non-commercial and will never be funded by a major publisher.
"An audience of more savvy and slightly more cynical funders will interact with a group of very switched-on creators"
Crowdfunding changes the rules, and in doing so, may help to rescue the creative and artistic continuity of the games medium. By allowing a creator to run up a flag and say "I'm going to make this; who's up for it?", it shares the enormous risk of creation around a vast audience, while empowering them directly to make choices about what gets made. It's no accident that many of the most funded Kickstarter games are adventure games - after years of lamenting the lack of new titles in the genre, its fans were finally given a chance to prove the commercial viability of adventure games by putting their money where their mouths were, and they responded admirably.
As crowd funding moves into its next wave, I think that an audience of more savvy and slightly more cynical funders will interact with a group of very switched-on creators to start doing more and more interesting things. Up to now, crowd funding has been an orgy of nostalgia - long-dead genres, dusty old franchises, half-forgotten characters and worlds, all wiped down for Kickstarter in anticipation of fistfuls of dollars from men wearing the world's rosiest spectacles. Some of the resulting games will probably be excellent (Wasteland 2 is a particular favourite at the moment) and it is certainly nice to see much-loved older genres and titles being treated with care and respect, mostly by their original creators. However, I submit that crowd funding can, and must, achieve so much more than this.
Crowd funding is about tapping into the collective power of a minority audience. The majority of the game purchasing audience don't know or care about Double Fine, or Wasteland, or Leisure Suit Larry, or any of the other crowd funded titles to date - arguably the most "commercial" of which is the now incredibly well funded Star Citizen, and even that is a space simulation game, a genre which effectively breathed its last many years ago. These are all minority audience games, their success a testament to the fact that in the age of the internet, even the smallest niche can turn out to be a commercially viable audience. At a time when commercially backed games need to find some way to "prove" that they'll be of interest to an audience of millions, crowd funded games need only gain the interest and affection of an audience of a few thousand to make them into viable, funded projects. So far, those minority audiences have largely been exactly what you'd expect from early adopters. They've been, by and large, people like me - proudly geeky guys in their thirties and forties who have some games and genres from the past they absolutely love, and who have a decent amount of disposable income in their pockets that they're willing to delve into for the sake of nostalgia.
There's not a damn thing wrong with that, and long may it last. However, it should be immediately apparent that there's a much wider range of minority audiences who are deeply involved with, indeed, deeply in love with, video games. They're largely not addressed by existing commercial games. The depiction of women in games isn't great to begin with, but once you get into the realms of racial or sexual minorities, depictions of disability or mental illness and a whole host of other issues, games either don't deal with them at all - or, when they do, you really, really wish they hadn't. If you're rolling your eyes right now, grow the hell up. Every medium invented by humanity is used by minority groups as a way of exploring and sharing their life experiences, and every medium in which this has occurred has benefited hugely from this process, the creative exploration of minorities at the margins feeding back into the mainstream and advancing the artistry and possibilities for everyone.
"Powerful voices will be tapping into the collective power of minority groups and using their input and their resources to make new kinds of games"
So here's where I see crowd funding going in 2014 - a trend whose origins, tiny, hopeful green shoots, we can see in 2013. Crowd funding of nostalgia projects and well-loved developers breaking out of the publisher model will continue, of course. Some high profile projects will be released and people will love them. Some will be released and they'll suck, others will fail, and there'll be fresh bursts of enthusiasm and cynicism which will eventually start to look like a standing wave, a background pattern that's actually stable when you look at it for long enough. Crowdfunding will be part of the furniture - and around its margins, amazing things will be occurring. Powerful voices will be tapping into the collective power of minority groups and using their input and their resources to make new kinds of games that would never, ever, in a million years, make sense to a game financier in a suit behind a boardroom table, but which engage small yet powerful niche audiences in fresh and wonderful ways.
In some regards, we can view the entire course of video game creativity over the past few years as being a process of learning how not to ask permission. It used to be that you had to ask permission from a whole lot of people before you could make a video game. Today, anyone can sit down with a copy of Unity, some time, some talent and a lot of coffee and make a video game; but of course, apart from the occasional lone genius, the investment of time and money required to make something on a large scale is still denied to those who cannot receive permission to create. Crowd funding succeeded in 2013 and will continue to succeed in the coming years because it changes the terms of that conversation. Once, creators had to find a grim-looking man with a fat wallet and say "please sir, may I be allowed to create?"; our future is a world where a creator instead stands up in a crowd and says "here's what I'm going to create; who's with me?". This is no utopian vision, because the judgment of the crowd will often be as harsh and unforgiving as the besuited financier ever would be - but there are many, many crowds, and they ultimately offer a chance for a lot more voices to be heard in a medium that has all too often spoken in monotone.
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