Kickstarter.jpg

I'm yet to play Mighty No. 9, but I've been following the chatter around it with a sense of weary resignation. It's been getting a lukewarm response in PS4 reviews, and the publisher hasn't exactly been rushing to get Wii U code out to anyone other than those who have paid for it already as Kickstarter backers. What was at one point a crowdfunding phenomenon has endured multiple delays, a saddening visual downgrade, and has managed to squander hype over the course of nearly three years.

I'll likely buy it when it arrives out of curiosity, and because I was looking forward to it for quite some time until delays started to push it off the radar. It seems to be a project that's been handled poorly, frankly; a game that aims to provide a spiritual successor to Mega Man shouldn't have fallen into so many complications, especially with Keiji Inafune leading the project.

Yet Inafune-san has perhaps been the crux of the problem. He has an enviable reputation and legacy, which helped drive the incredible buzz that saw the campaign raise $3.8 million in 2013, which was far beyond its modest initial goals. Fans were still waiting for good news on Mighty No. 9 when RED ASH: The Indelible Legend sought funding in 2015, and then ReCore popped up later and featured at E3 this year. Frankly, Inafune-san can't seem to keep his focus on one project at a time.

In any case, it's a surprisingly messy history for Mighty No. 9 - I'll leave the detailed dissection to others - culminating in disappointment that the much-hyped, delayed and over-funded game has come out as rather underwhelming. That's understandable and fair, people can feel how they want about it, but what isn't fair is to hold it up as an example of the supposed sins of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. Despite creators letting backers down in high profile cases, I feel the need to defend crowdfunding as a concept, and to remind us all that some wonderful games only exist because they had that initial funding.

Mighty No. 9 - early footage and concept art looked rather different from the end result
Mighty No. 9 - early footage and concept art looked rather different from the end result

I followed Kickstarter closely for a while in 2013, even producing regular articles summarising projects targeting Nintendo hardware. I stopped doing these for multiple reasons - less projects were targeting Nintendo systems realistically, tracking them was troublesome, and it just wasn't interesting to enough people. There was also a spell where much-publicised flops, scams and other circumstances battered Kickstarter's reputation, though it's settled down and the platform is still ticking along and funding a lot of projects.

For starters, there are always fundamental issues with crowdfunding, or perhaps risks is a better description. The problem was that Kickstarter (and some smaller rivals) rose to prominence so quickly, and the flood of projects was so sudden, that backers didn't understand what they were actually doing. I would probably count myself among that number back then, but the key is this - when you fund a project it is not a pre-order, and it is not an investment. You're a 'backer', which means you provide money with the non-contractual agreement that your funding amount will eventually yield the promised rewards. You don't have any equity or shares, you're handing over money as a matter of faith.

In principle there's nothing wrong with that - in theory everyone with a credit card is a grown up and can spend their money as they please. Yet confusion isn't helped by Kickstarter, even to this day. Look at this line from its current FAQ.

Backers that support a project on Kickstarter get an inside look at the creative process, and help that project come to life. They also get to choose from a variety of unique rewards offered by the project creator. Rewards vary from project to project, but often include a copy of what is being produced (CD, DVD, book, etc.) or an experience unique to the project.

Project creators keep 100% ownership of their work, and Kickstarter cannot be used to offer equity, financial returns, or to solicit loans.

The first paragraph is part of the problem, making backers feel like they're inside the process. In some cases rewards offer that level of insight and participation, but even when it's promised it's at the discretion of the creator. By giving a developer $20 you don't then have the right to know everything about development. The real clarity is further down the FAQ.

It's the project creator's responsibility to complete their project. Kickstarter is not involved in the development of the projects themselves.

Kickstarter does not guarantee projects or investigate a creator's ability to complete their project. On Kickstarter, backers (you!) ultimately decide the validity and worthiness of a project by whether they decide to fund it.

When that is clear and understood, crowdfunding can be an incredible thing. But more issues arguably arise when bigger companies, established in the industry, get involved. If lucrative and respected developers make a mess of a Kickstarter campaign it goes public in a notable way, and all you mostly see is the bad news. It's not often headline-worthy if a creator meets their targets and delivers a good game, but if someone with a reputation messes up it's held up as a critique of crowdfunding as a whole. Of course it's a bad thing when backers lose out or are disappointed, as has happened in some cases, but there are a lot of Kickstarted games that have been delivered, or are still being given full commitment by their creators.

Shovel Knight.jpg

Let's just remember how the likes of Kickstarter has made some smaller games possible, primarily through providing vital initial funding to start-up businesses. A shining beacon in this is Yacht Club Games with Shovel Knight. A new business of former WayForward employees, it sought funding to make its first game, with the evident business plan being to then sustain itself through sales and expand accordingly.

Shovel Knight wasn't even a perfect Kickstarter project in terms of hitting its original deadlines (localisation to Europe took quite some time), yet the intent was pure from Yacht Club Games. Notably, the team is still working to meet its stretch goal obligations, some of which it may quietly regret. We spoke to them as part of our 'Year in Development' series in late 2015, and there's still a sense of appreciation for the start the team had from the original 14,749 backers (disclosure, I was one of them). The team is finishing off the game with features that it promised.

So the things we still have lined up – Specter Knight campaign, King Knight campaign, Battle mode on consoles (not portables), and Gender Swap. Those are the stretch goal unlocks we're still working on. That's fine that some backers are ok and moving on, not keeping a hot eye on it, but there are people still following it closely.

Have these modes taken longer to arrive than perhaps expected? Yes. Has Yacht Club Games hit all its targets? No. Has it completed other projects that weren't crowdfunded before meeting its stretch goals? Yes. It's released an amiibo and physical retail editions of the game, business opportunities that have helped make the studio money.

In my opinion, that's fine. Products don't just happen, and they can't appear in no time with no cost attached. The $311,502 raised by Yacht Club Games on Kickstarter will have been wiped out long ago, but it allowed the game to be made, it's become a success and the company is still in business. Importantly, it's still working on those stretch goals - the intent is there to keep its promises. I backed it because I loved the pitch and thought 'why not?'. On paper it's not been fully completed, but it feels finished to me - I gave money hoping to help a game happen, it arrived and it was brilliant. Yet it was still a risk, if I'd chosen poorly my $20 could have been for nothing. That's the deal, yet there's a noble principle at play - enthusiasts can help talented creators get started and make a project happen. That's a positive.

Shantae Half-Genie Hero.jpg

There have been other projects that have delivered quality products, and the likes of Shantae: Half-Genie Hero are still to come. Hyper Light Drifter has been critically acclaimed on PC and its creator has delivered the game under tough circumstances. It's an interesting case - Wii U owners might miss out (it's still up in the air) due to GameMaker Studio support for the system not arriving as was expected when the campaign was adding its stretch goals two years ago. Yet the creator has been finishing the game and will offer alternative platform codes to all affected backers if the Wii U version doesn't make it; that's the risk factor at play.

As another example, Yooka-Laylee now has extra porting help from Team17, though it's the PS4 and Xbox One versions being handled outside of Playtonic's walls. That's just how projects evolve, but we suspect most will trust the developers involved to deliver that particular platformer-adventure title. Playtonic Games is expanding and working with Team17 as a publishing partner, but before all of that, when the company was a small group of ex Rare staff in a tiny office, that Kickstarter money was likely the difference between merely having an idea for the game, and actually making it happen.

Ultimately, disappointing games happen outside of crowdfunding, it's the nature of business. As is the case with delays and cancellations. The difference, of course, is that backers pay early to support crowdfunded games, making the downsides more acute. That's the deal, though, and when considering projects that reflect poorly on crowdfunding, we should also consider that triumphs that - without backers and that risk - might never have happened.