Could Godus' failure fuel a crowdfunding backlash?
22cans' bad handling casts a shadow over the Kickstarter dream
Crowdfunding, in principle, is one of the best things to happen to the creative industries in decades. At its most effective, it allows creative people to pitch their ideas directly to their potential customers - in one fell swoop solving most of the problems associated with financing, market research and IP ownership. From the consumer's point of view, it gives them an opportunity to directly and meaningfully influence the kind of products that get made, rather than being lumped into a poorly researched demographic bracket and casually dismissed at publisher green-light meetings; "oh, that demographic doesn't play adventure games any more". To this, at last, we get not just to say "well perhaps we would if you actually made some", but to properly prove the point.
That's the principle. In practice, crowdfunding is a little more troublesome, because it isn't very good at doing some of the other things that publisher green-light processes are (usually) designed to handle. For example, Kickstarter and its ilk do quite literally allow people to pitch their ideas - with their ability to actually execute upon those ideas usually relegated to a minor supporting role in the proposal that's made to potential backers. The enormous gulf that exists between a cool idea for a game and the immense technical, artistic and management skill required to drag that game out of the realms of imagination and into this plane of existence is a damned hard thing to judge, and Kickstarter backers generally aren't expert enough to do so. Sure, publishers get it wrong sometimes too, but for the most part they're able to wave big, threatening sticks at developers who are failing to live up to their promises; Kickstarter backers, robbed of the ability to withhold milestone payments or otherwise coax along a troubled development process, are left to watch their cash go up in smoke with the crashing, burning project.
"There's also a basic and troubling disconnect between how many people see Kickstarter and what Kickstarter actually does"
There's also a basic and troubling disconnect between how many people see Kickstarter and what Kickstarter actually does. Kickstarter allows you to express an interest in a product and quantify that interest by giving the creator money to bring it into being; depending on how much money you give, you may or may not receive a copy of the product itself, or other benefits, if and only if the project turns out to be viable and the product is finally created. That's what Kickstarter actually is. What many of its users seem to view it as, however, is "Amazon for stuff that doesn't exist yet"; a way to pre-order games that are far, far off from release, while simultaneously nudging developers in the direction of making more of the stuff you want. Naturally, this causes wailing, gnashing of teeth and cries for refunds when things don't actually work out as a developer planned; and while misconceptions are largely the consumer's responsibility, I'm not entirely comfortable with how happy both Kickstarter and its high-profile campaigns seem to be to quietly string along the "it's a pre-order, sort-of" crowd without correcting their mistake.
These practical problems with crowdfunding are why even those who are hugely enthusiastic about the concept overall tend to expect a rude awakening within the next few years - a point where a few extremely high-profile, much-backed Kickstarter products (for our purposes, games) have either completely failed to release, or have launched in a terrible state that has utterly disappointed the consumers who invested in the project. There will be recriminations and complaints, but most of all there will be a newfound skepticism in crowdfunding - the "it's a pre-order, sort-of" crowd will suddenly come to see Kickstarter as a risky venture, probably overestimating the risks in a knee-jerk reaction to losing money on a handful of failed projects, and the flow of crowdfunding money will be stemmed. This isn't entirely a bad thing; a little more healthy appreciation of the risks involved would make Kickstarter backers into wiser consumers making better decisions. A strong knee-jerk reaction, however, could leave many genuinely good crowdfunding campaigns high and dry - especially those by smaller, less well known creators.
"A little more healthy appreciation of the risks involved would make Kickstarter backers into wiser consumers making better decisions"
Thus far, most of the major bullets have been dodged. The various crowdfunding efforts by Tim Schafer and his company, and how they've been managed subsequently, have attracted some critics, but it would take a hard heart and a pretty aggressive agenda to claim that Schafer hasn't worked hard to deliver what he promised and created some pretty great stuff along the way. Wasteland 2 was delayed almost a year, but turned out to be pretty great when it finally arrived. Shadowrun Returns is well-liked. Elite: Dangerous, which would have been one of my top picks for "likely Kickstarter disasters" only a short while ago, has proved me very happily wrong and is genuinely delighting long-suffering fans of the classic space trading simulation. Okay, Planetary Annihilation turned out to be pretty rubbish (in the initial release, at least - I've not been back to try out subsequent updates), but not earth-shakingly so - certainly not poor enough to kick off a crowdfunding scandal.
One major bullet, though, looks like it might have nicked an important artery. 22cans' Godus, which received over half a million pounds (almost $800,000) in funding back at the end of 2012, is rapidly transforming into a truly nasty episode for crowdfunding. The game itself is available as an Early Access purchase on Steam, or as an F2P-style mobile title; it's not very good at all, but significant improvements were expected down the line, including the implementation of all the various features promised in the original Kickstarter pitch. Now, though, it seems that most of the team at 22cans has been moved on to new project The Trail; the vastly reduced Godus team is undoubtedly doing their level best, but almost certainly lacks the resources to actually achieve the remarkable goals originally set for the project.
"'Remarkable goals', of course, will probably be written on the tombstone of 22cans boss Peter Molyneux. Molyneux has a history of over-promising and under-delivering"
"Remarkable goals", of course, will probably be written on the tombstone of 22cans boss Peter Molyneux. Molyneux has a history of over-promising and under-delivering; he has a long standing bad habit of running his mouth off about features and concepts without ever considering their feasibility in terms of technology, budget or resources. Often in the past, Molyneux appears to have got away with this behaviour thanks to a combination of personal charm and a genuine, undeniable passion for the games he's involved with; even after this most egregious claims have turned out to be false, people have tended to write it off as over-enthusiasm or excited naivety. Godus may be the turning point in that perception; the reaction to the discovery by Rock Paper Shotgun that the team has been shrunk down despite the failure to live up to Kickstarter promises, plus Eurogamer's report that the winner of Molyneux' previous F2P experiment, Curiosity: What's In The Cube, has yet to see a penny of his "life-changing" prize, has been far more hard-edged and bitter than previous criticism of Molyneux, whose public perception seems to have shifted from "over-enthusiastic, passionate, unreliable" to "dishonest, scheming, untrustworthy".
While the impact of Godus' failure (and let's not beat around the bush, a 1.8 star user score on Metacritic and overwhelming majority of "do not recommend" votes on Steam is nothing if not failure) on Molyneux' career will be interesting and perhaps a little tragic - I've personally got a lot of time for dreamers, even if I can't help but feel that Molyneux' talents are much better put to use in a more structured and directed environment and that he is totally unsuited to running his own studio - the bigger picture is what this means for crowdfunding as a whole. Over 17,000 people backed Godus on Kickstarter, in the belief that they were providing funds for an industry legend to return to the style of Populous, the game which established his reputation in the first place and remains much-loved to this day. Those 17,000 people have been disappointed. That number is small, although it's a bloody big chunk of core fanbase to alienate - but through media coverage and social media spread, countless hundreds of thousands if not millions have watched this little drama unfold. What it has done to their perceptions of crowdfunding cannot be positive - 17,000 fellow gamers just lost half a million quid between them on a project that seems to have been quite dishonest from the outset.
"If there's going to be a string of disappointing or under delivering games from Kickstarter, 2015 is the first year in which it could really happen"
Godus alone, of course, won't trigger a revolution in how consumers view crowdfunding - but it is an ominous start to a year that is absolutely vital for this entire approach to creative financing. 2015 is the make or break year for games on Kickstarter. Thanks to a number of delays from 2014, the release schedule of huge, well-funded Kickstarter games in 2015 is incredibly packed. Shroud of the Avatar, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Mighty No.9, Pillars of Eternity, Project CARS, the second act of Broken Age... 2016 has its share of big titles too, including Camelot Unchained and the biggest of them all, Star Citizen, but if there's going to be a string of disappointing or under delivering games from Kickstarter, 2015 is the first year in which it could really happen. Of course, each of those projects has the backing of an industry legend or two, and each has an experienced development team; but so did Godus.
For the sake of those working on them and those who backed them, I hope all those games turn out to be fantastic. Optimism, however, only gets you so far. With attention already focused on the negative side of Kickstarter thanks to Godus' bad press, crowdfunding can ill-afford one or two more high profile failures in 2015 - which makes the stakes for each of those launches very high indeed, not just for the teams creating them, but for any creative hoping to use crowdfunding to finance their dreams in the near future.