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Jonny takes a look at why Shadows of the Eternals failed (twice), while Mighty No. 9 jumped right through the boss gate.
We’ve recently seen a number of famous game creators hit up Kickstarter for support of their next projects, with various results. Many of these proposed games leverage nostalgia built up on Nintendo platforms, and yet that alone is not a recipe for success. Let’s compare two disparate campaigns, Shadow of the Eternals from Precursor Games and Mighty No. 9 from Comcept USA, and consider how they went wrong versus how they went right.
Establish a Spiritual Successor
Both campaigns have been up-front about their major inspirations (Eternal Darkness and Mega Man, respectively), which is good as a matter of transparency to backers. Both classic properties have adoring fans, unique presentations, and iconic game mechanics. This tells potential backers exactly what they can expect to get when the game is completed… allowing the creators to focus communication on what will be new and different. In other words, the basic pitch is already evident to many gamers, whereas a more experimental game might have difficulty explaining its core concepts.
Fill an Unserved Niche
A large part of both pitches involved making a kind of game that hasn’t been seen in recent years. This is probably less the case for Mighty No. 9 (see similar games like Mutant Mudds and Gunman Clive), but certainly there are beloved aspects of the Mega Man formula that have not been directly copied. Core ideas from Eternal Darkness are seen widely across the industry, but usually in games that bear no resemblance to that cult classic.
Attach the Original Creative Minds
This has been a huge success for Mighty No. 9, as Keiji Inafune is widely recognized as the primary creator of Mega Man, even though his career took on much larger responsibilities at Capcom. He was effectively managing the entire publisher, even as his own signature franchise deteriorated into spin-offs and poor sequels through the late 90’s and 2000s. People don’t seem concerned that the fall of Mega Man largely occurred under Inafune’s watch, nor that his output since leaving Capcom (Soul Sacrifice, Bugs vs. Tanks) hasn’t been popular. There is a sense that his destiny is to resurrect Mega Man, and a lot of people want that to happen.
Associating Denis Dyack and his creative team of ex-Silicon Knights people has been far more problematic. Their last two games (Too Human and X-Men Destiny) are notorious, and Dyack himself has achieved a kind of popular villainy among attentive gamers that probably does more harm than good when directly asking people for money. Whether it was originally his fault or not, Dyack’s silence and lack of public redemption over the last several years has left an ugly impression of his personality and skills as a developer. This image has proven to be extremely damaging to his support among the sector of gamers who are most prone to contribute to any Kickstarter. To put it bluntly, someone similarly tainted like John Romero would need to release at least one stellar game to erase the negative connotations of his name, before anyone could seriously consider supporting him through direct funding. Dyack hasn’t done that either, and merely clarifying his role as being exclusively creative wasn’t nearly sufficient to calm the concerns of prospective supporters. (Note: Denis is a long-time friend of mine, and I’ve spoken on Radio Free Nintendo about how his personality has been misconstrued and exaggerated on the Internet – the above points address a problem of perception more than fact.)
Time and time again, we’ve seen that the most successful Kickstarters begin with modest funding goals, reach them within a week or two, and quickly pick up momentum through a series of stretch goals. While both of our specimens could be considered high-profile campaigns with significant pedigree and media coverage, Mighty No. 9 still set a low bar (and was officially funded within about 24 hours). In stark contrast, Shadow of the Eternals set a relatively steep initial goal (at least by Kickstarter standards), then suspended the initial campaign, and eventually returned with a lower number that was still higher than the vast majority of video game proposals on the funding platform. There is certainly a valid argument for the relative complexity and ambition of these projects – it is entirely plausible that Shadow of the Eternals was more honestly budgeted and is a more expensive kind of game to produce. Nevertheless, the end result is that Mighty No. 9 asked for less and will ultimately be better-funded than Shadow of the Eternals ever dreamed of asking.
Collectively, gamers have learned some important lessons about the costs of game development through such examples as the Skullgirls DLC experiment. At the same time, Kickstarter is an inherently humble method to drive game development. Famous creators are going to their fans (and detractors) to ask for money. Even the vague smell of “AAA” production can be enough to scare away backers, because we assume that larger products have more potential to spiral out of control. This is already happening with games that were initially conceived as tiny and then over-funded to a point that the entire thing had to be rescaled – see Double Fine’s Broken Age. This risk also threatens Mighty No.9, and it’s up to smart people like Keiji Inafune to keep things under control. One of the great failings for Precursor Games is that onlookers lacked faith that a new company, formed from the shards of a disastrous company, could exert that sober planning and self-control through the long development process. Coming back for the encore Kickstarter campaign with a lower target –and, importantly, no satisfactory explanation of how it could still work—led gamers to question the studio’s financial acumen, even as the creative scope expanded from a debut episode to a self-contained adventure spanning several hours.
Appealing Community Interaction
Even though submitting ideas to a game studio has long appealed to fans, there are excellent reasons for developers to have ignored these ideas for past decades. Aside from legal implications, which are apparently relieved through the use of Kickstarter, the fact is that most people don’t know what makes a good game, even though we all like to think we do. You’ve heard the phrase: “Ideas are cheap.” It means that anyone can brainstorm and throw random suggestions at a creative team, with grandiose projections of what each one might bring to the final experience. It takes true talent and experience to filter through these ideas, test an array of the best ones, and then months or years to turn those ideas into balanced mechanics or polished creative assets. So then, the corollary to “Ideas are cheap,” could be, “Execution is dear.”
Both of these Kickstarter campaigns brought forth complete concepts from experienced, creative people. These were not half-baked premises asking the community to fill in gaping holes. So the differences in community involvement are primarily a matter of presentation and perception. In numerous interviews and throughout the campaign websites, Shadow of the Eternals was pitched as a community-driven project. Precursor sought to assure everyone that they were seeking much more than just financial contributions – they wanted us to help make this game by adding our own ideas directly to it. Even if this sounds appealing to some gamers (and it doesn’t, to many of us), the whole thing doesn’t seem plausible when developers have already crafted a half-hour demo/trailer, intricate back-story, multiple characters, etc. Shadow of the Eternals has already exhibited more original ideas and a rare narrative energy than we typically expect from this industry – why muck it up with community ideas from people who may have no more attachment to the game than pledging five dollars? Those of us who don’t want crowd-sourced creativity, who simply wanted to see a new epic from the guys who already did such fantastic work on Eternal Darkness, not only rejected such participation (whether it was ever realistic) but were also less than enthused about other people messing up a good thing with their laser swords and three-breasted goat demons. The whole thing seemed like a massive distraction for the developer who should be focused on putting their own unique ideas into code and simply needed the monetary backing to do so.
With Mighty No. 9, Inafune’s Comcept and partners like 8-4 Ltd. and 2P Productions have mostly stuck to promising insight (vs. input) to the game’s development. It’s a one-way mirror, not an open door. Fans will see the uncompromised process of creating a kind of game that many have known for almost 25 years; no surprise that this aspect is alluring, even while many other Mega Man fans will likely chip in their money and then look away for 18 months, happy just to know that they have kept a beloved formula from going extinct. The underlying message to Inafune’s team is one of confidence: we know you know how to make this game, and we know that you just need to be enabled. Here’s a $4+ million genius grant to make it so. There are promises of fan input, but these are primarily accomplished through surveys, polls, and other aggregate methods that involve screening content as provided by the development team.
This lesson of appropriate community interaction must be a bitter pill for Precursor Games, who pushed it as a core principle of their entire company and a revolutionary aspect of this particular game. They flaunted hundreds of creative submissions from their backer forums, showing how much these people wanted to see their drawings, stories, and insanity effects manifest in the game. But of course, the well-meaning and enthusiastic people behind those submissions were already invested in the game. The sheer volume of their responses were, at best, meaningless to uncommitted spectators. At worst, the undecided masses looked at this mountain of submissions and wondered how Dyack and his small team would ever sort through it all, much less how the rest of us could ever get in a word edgewise when the most rabid community members were already so deeply invested. While the outcome is rather complex and perhaps unintuitive, the short version is that Shadow of the Eternal’s vision for community interaction took a positive idea and turned it into a negative for all but a few dedicated fans who never needed to be convinced anyway. It’s astonishing how the Kickstarter campaign trailed off any attempts to reach a wider audience in the final weeks, instead focusing exclusively on backer updates (sent to people who had already pledged some money). It appears the thought was to extract deeper commitment from an asymptotic pool of backers, but if so, the strategy proved to be ineffective.
Build to Platforms We Own
The Mighty No. 9 started as PC-only, but with an easily attainable base funding level (relative to the Mega Man legacy – the absolute dollar amount was actually still higher than Precursor’s revised minimum). Stretch goals for expanded platforms seemed within grasp from the first few hours, and in the end, every expanded platform was assured (including some next-gen console versions added later). Being a 2D platform-action game, it appears to be a prime candidate for almost any grade of laptop, handheld, legacy console, etc. Anyone interested to play Mighty No. 9 should own hardware capable of running the game. This is not so easy to assess for Shadow of the Eternals. The early demo was shown running in CryEngine 3, which is associated with high-end gaming PCs and doesn’t have an established reputation for cross-platform compatibility. Nor was this an engine that Precursor has used in any previous title at Silicon Knights; the ambitious technical aspects of the game were seen as bad omens by gamers who recalled tales of SK’s forfeited struggles to build Too Human in Unreal Engine 3, another high-end tool with which they had little experience (with far greater resources) at the time.
Most likely, Precursor expected more of a boost from the Nintendo community by promising a Wii U version. This is a great idea in principle, as it would serve frustrated fans of Eternal Darkness and establish some kind of licensing partnership with Nintendo, which even holds a hint of a dream for the original franchise to be revived. The Wii U version was a dud for numerous reasons, but the biggest one is also the most obvious: very few people, even among dedicated Nintendo fans, owned a Wii U console at the time of this fundraising campaign. People have either moved on to other platforms or are still waiting for the right price and games before picking up Nintendo’s newest console. Even fewer gamers (zero) possessed a PlayStation 4 at the time, so tacking on that promise had even less material impact. The sad truth is that not many people ever played Eternal Darkness, and even those who did and supported this spiritual successor probably didn’t own any of the platforms that were announced for Shadow of the Eternals. Pivoting to announce 3DS and Mac support, much less heritage consoles (PS3 and 360), could have made a huge difference. But no one really expected to see that happen, because Precursor had already committed to using CryEngine 3, and those systems don’t run it. The mismatch was disastrous.
To Fund, Or Not To Fund
Perhaps my comparison of these game isn’t fair. They are, after all, very different styles of game, proposed by teams of disparate pedigrees and cultural origins. Maybe the conclusions were foregone -- it is quite plain that more people care about Mega Man than Eternal Darkness, and we didn’t need Kickstarter to reveal that fact. Yet, the respective inspirations for these two campaigns have both seen years of yearning from loyal Nintendo fans, and the larger gaming community. It’s easy to be optimistic that either one could find success among a small but starving fan base, if given the appropriate treatment and delivered to the right platforms at the right price. So, in my own editorial defense, I think the comparison is valid to the degree that both concepts are legitimately appealing – and the contrast is valid purely on the basis that one game will be made, while the other is headed back to someone’s virtual file cabinet, hopefully to emerge again someday.