Shenmue, Kickstarter and Exploitation

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Sony’s announcement at their E3 press conference that Shenmue III would be coming to the Playstation 4 shocked fans.

A friend recently tipped me off to a popular post on the r/gaming subreddit. In it, an ex-developer discusses the things he wishes every gamer knew about video game development. Judging by the comments and responses, these things are commonly known throughout the industry – better graphics means a higher budget, no game ever finishes early and, most importantly, no developer is out to scam gamers out of their money.

That last one is something I see everywhere on the internet – even in the comments on this reddit post, someone accused Activision and Bungie of scamming gamers with Destiny. But this simply isn’t true, with Destiny or anywhere in the industry. To quote the original post:

“Game developers love their jobs. They’d have to or else they would be suicidal. With the amount of training and knowledge required to be a successful developer, there are about a thousand other jobs you could take that pay better, and give you less stress. They want to be universally successful, entertain the masses, and be recognized for their work. This is not an environment where people want to half-ass something for the sake of a paycheck.”

The amount of time and energy that it takes to make even the most simplistic of games suggests that there is no way someone would go into this industry simply to con people out of money. Developers have to be very passionate about video games – if they aren’t, they won’t even make it to the stage where they can develope games.

However, events at the recently held Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) forced me to challenge this notion once again. The moment came during Sony’s press conference, and even at the time it felt like, at best, a step backward, at worst, a con. I am referring to the unveiling of both Shenmue III and the Shenmue III Kickstarter campaign. In my E3 2015 recap, I wrote the following on the announcement:

“This rubs me the wrong way on so many levels, it’s almost difficult where to begin. What frustrates me the most is that this could set a dangerous precedent – this E3 will stand out as one where publishers and developers listened to fan feedback to make popular decisions, and I’m worried that, going forward, that feedback publishers take will require us to first put down a $29 deposit (this is the amount you can pledge on Kickstarter to get a full digital copy of Shenmue III when it launches), instead of them just listening to gamers.”

After considerably more thought, and some strange, potentially unsettling developments post-E3, I feel compelled to explore this announcement even further, because the precedent it is setting could drastically change the way games are discovered, advertised and funded.

The Shenmue Deal

For those unaware of what exactly happened at E3, Sony brought onto the stage Yu Suzuki, the main creative force behind the Shenmue franchise, and head of developer Ys Net. Suzuki was proud to announce that, fourteen years after Shenmue II, he would be developing and releasing Shenmue III. For a moment the crowd was absolutely ecstatic, until Sony announced that the game would first have to hit a goal of $2 million on Kickstarter. Right there, on the stage, Sony and Suzuki launched the Kickstarter campaign, which went on to hit its goal in record time.

I cannot say that I blame Suzuki for taking a unique approach to funding Shenmue III – fans have been asking for it for years, and this was the best opportunity available to get it made. Yet right away this entire announcement was suspicious. It seemed strange that Sony would set time aside during their press conference, possibly their largest of the year, to unveil a game that, theoretically, might not get made. Of course everyone expected Shenmue III to hit its Kickstarter goal, but why isn’t Sony just outright backing the game? Why even have a Kickstarter? Sony didn’t do themselves any favors either – they even announced at the press conference that Shenmue III is often one of, if not the most, requested third-party games. They have solid data which supports the idea that this game would generate significant amounts of revenue, so why not just help finance it?

Initially, this all seemed to be a moot point – Ys Net was able to get the $2 million to make the game in roughly twenty-four hours, and fans rejoiced that a new Shenmue was on the way. But in the immediate fallout of the press conference, Sony and Suzuki would go on to make some strange claims, potentially setting the stage for an unfavorable, regressive shift in video game development.

Following The Money

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Currently, this photo is one of the only pieces of proof that Shenmue III exists.

Although the Kickstarter campaign was a huge success, fans immediately noticed something strange about the amount of money Ys Net was asking for. In terms of video game cost and production, $2 million is not that much money – estimates put the total development costs of Shenmue and Shenmue II between $46 and $72 million, and this was in 2001. In 2015, that number should be expected to increase. So where would this extra money be coming from?

Following the press conference, a Sony representative clarified that Sony would in fact be supporting the development costs of the game, and in return they would get exclusive console rights to the game (it will still be appearing on PC). But this raised even more questions, and it started to make fans nervous, especially those who had already donated money to the Kickstarter campaign. If Sony is going to support the game, then why ask for any money to begin with? Not only is $2 million a fraction of the cost of AAA-video game development, but it is a fraction of a fraction of what Sony makes in a year. However, Sony was prepared for this, and explained that the Kickstarter was put into place to gauge interest in the game, possibly so they could better know how much money to invest into the project.

But this answer doesn’t hold – Sony already had data that indicated how popular this game would be if released. Of course, it’s one thing to say on a survey that you would buy a game, and yet another thing to actually put money down when the game does materialize, but by Sony’s own admission, the data they had was very strong – they specifically said Shenmue III was the most requested third-party title, and the implication from Sony is that this wasn’t a one-off result. Time and time again, gamers have basically demanded someone fund Shenmue III.

Sony’s illogical answers were not helping matters – many gamers began to wonder if the money they pledged to the Kickstarter campaign would go to multi-billion dollar Sony, and if that were the case, this entire debacle would be a con, and gamers everywhere would have a right to be upset. Naturally, Sony said no, they wouldn’t see a dime of the Kickstarter money, and for the briefest of moments this answer made sense, and everything seemed to be OK with Shenmue III. But then Suzuki himself took to social media and announced new stretch goals for Shenmue III, and to hit these goals he would now need $10 million. These stretch goals just happen to also be significant aspects of the Shenmue experience, such as voice acting in numerous languages and an open world setting (one of the defining traits of the franchise). Suzuki claimed that, without hitting $10 million, these features wouldn’t make it into the game, yet at the same time Sony claims they won’t be seeing a dime of the Kickstarter money.

While the behind-the-scenes dealings between Sony and Ys Net may never be known, it doesn’t seem that these two answers can live side-by-side. Ys Net may not literally hand over money they received from fans during the Kickstarter campaign, but it would now appear that Sony might be able to contribute less than they initially planned to the project, all by getting Suzuki to admit that, if fans don’t give them more money, these features won’t be included. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Sony would see a way to have the fans finance $10 million of the game’s development cost, effectively saving them that same amount in the process, while also keeping intact the ability to retain exclusive console rights. For Sony it is a win-win, although for fans and developers this deal seems to be an ethical mess. But if, in the end, the game gets made, and we all get to play it, does it really matter?

Funding Sources Matters

At first glance, this whole situation may just seem like a series of miscommunications and PR blunders, none of which were earth-shattering, but still ones any company would want to avoid. However, a closer look reveals that, yes, this situation matters, and both developers and gamers should be wary of the possible outcomes.

What Sony has effectively done is to reduce their role in two important elements of game creation – funding and advertising. Ys Net is now responsible for advertising, through both Kickstarter and social media, and if they cannot get enough people on board to purchase a game that has zero minutes of gameplay footage, then their game, their passion, won’t see the light of day. Ys Net now has to do what typically takes an entire dedicated staff and budget to achieve – advertise their own game. Granted, Sony did help them out considerably by letting them unveil the Kickstarter at their E3 press conference, but it’s not as if Sony did that out of the kindness of their heart – after all, they do get exclusive console rights. But this says nothing of these new stretch goals, which were announced after the E3 press conference, and since these stretch goals will fund integral components of the game, it implies just how crucial this money is to the development of Shenmue III. Until Sony provides further clarification, the only confirmed source of funding at this time is coming from fans, who Sony has shifted their financing responsibilities onto.

Developers already have enough issues, problems and tasks to focus on when making a game – advertising should not be added to that ever-expanding list (unless they have the resources and money to hire a fully-supported publishing and promotional staff, such as Capcom and Square Enix). It should especially be avoided in cases such as Shenmue III, which has been trapped in development hell for fourteen years. Ys Net should be focusing one-hundred percent of their efforts into making the actual game, not hitting up fans for even more donations, considering how difficult it has been just to get the game to this point. And gamers already have spent considerable chunks of personal income just to enjoy this hobby, which makes any new purchase a risk. Asking them to buy a game now, when there is always a chance that the deal with Sony could fall through and the game lacks funding to get shipped, is a very tall order, and one gamers should not have to bear. But signs point to this being the direction the industry is heading – many independent titles have seen the light of day thanks to Kickstarter and Steam Early Access. Is this something we have to accept, or can this be changed?

Keeping Passions In Check

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Kickstarter has not proven to be the savior of independent games yet, as games like Godus illustrate how difficult it can be to deliver.

I keep thinking back to that post on Reddit, and the many things developers wished gamers knew about video game design and production, and the one that keeps coming back to me as I think about this whole mess with Sony, Kickstarter and Shenmue is passion. Developers are passionate to a degree that most of us outside the industry will never understand, and I respect that a great deal. The amount of time and energy needed to complete a game means that only the truly dedicated will see this task through, but this of course means that video games are seeing burnout of some key talent in a way that no other medium really experiences. It’s a shame that visionaries such as Will Wright and John Carmack would rather be working on anything else than going back to the days of crunch time and finishing a game within someone else’s defined timeline. I completely understand how easy it is for a developer who has that passion and knows how difficult it’s going to be to see a site like Kickstarter and suddenly get visions of them making their own games on their own time.

But the success of Kickstarter-funded games is already suspect at best. For every success story there is, there are an untold number of games that fail to make their funding goals or, even worse, games that hit those goals, but the project is still underfunded and folds, leaving angry gamers out whatever money they spent on a game they will never get to play (in some cases, such as the Peter Molyneux game Godus, it might actually be better if the game never comes out at all). The risk for developers being able to create and release a game on their own terms is that they could potentially damage their reputation with fans and the rest of the industry. But these risks pale in comparison to the mess that Ys Net has found themselves in – if they fail to deliver Shenmue III, it may very well be the death of the franchise, and in a worst case scenario, it could potentially be the end to Suzuki’s illustrious career.

In this new Kickstarter-funded world, developers need to, more than ever before, keep their passions and goals in check, and to think about what they can accomplish objectively. For many developers, the right path might be to go independent and get funding through Kickstarter. But for AAA-titles, developers may be blinded by the same passion that is crucial to them making games in the first place, and might put themselves in a situation that is not beneficial for either themselves or their fans. Allowing publishers to toss advertising and funding duties onto the developers and fans is not progression, it is a regression.

An Uncertain Future

This entire topic is one long frustrating discussion, because at the end of the day both developers and gamers feel powerless to publishers, who have the ultimate say. Kickstarter as an idea is a success, but for AAA-game development, the risks might be too high. Should Ys Net’s deal with Sony succeed, it may very well lead to a system of funding that puts an unfair burden on developers and gamers alike. At the same time, it could very well lead to new avenues to developing games that otherwise wouldn’t make it past the conceptual stage, but that remains to be seen.

The real meat of the issue is that gamers aren’t in much of a position to combat this. Right now, if gamers see something they don’t like, they have two ways to combat it – voice their opinions on the internet and vote with their wallets. Opinions on the internet have proven far more effective than perhaps they should (such as BioWare caving to pressure and re-making the ending to Mass Effect 3), but ultimately, our only real power is to not invest money into something we don’t like, or invest into games we love and want to see more of. But if Kickstarter funding is the wave of the future, then this becomes the one instance where voting with our wallets may actually work against us – just because we don’t like the way publishers have lessened their vital role in the process doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to donate money to the next Minecraft-like blockbuster, especially if Kickstarter funding starts to come with an asterisk that says if fans donate enough money, a publisher will jump on board.

But developers are in a position to do something about this, and that is to keep their passion in check with reality, and to only go this route if it is the best option for their game. Gamers will be relying on developers more than ever to make this call, and the hope is that developers will make it with clear eyes and consistent logic. I am happy that a third Shenmue game will see the light of day, I just hope that it doesn’t come at the cost of developers’ time and gamers’ wallets.