Having been a gamer for twenty-five years, I've watched the games industry ebb and flow in terms of the power of small to medium-sized game development studios and big publishers. These smaller studios flourished in the early to middle 1990s, buoyed by the tech boom and an ever-expanding audience of gamers. When the tech bubble burst in the late 1990s, many of these smaller studios were bought out by major publishers, and a period of time in which those publishers dominated the game industry began.
Eventually, however, the need for giant companies to wring as much profit from games as they can begins to act against the long-term health of the game industry. Publishers begin demanding blockbuster sales of games and consider projects a failure if they don't make mega-millions, even if they're profitable. Third-party game development studios start to be squeezed by the big publishers, and first-party studios are tasked with creating rehashes of existing popular game formulas until all profit is squeezed dry from franchises (see Guitar Hero and the possible future of the Call of Duty franchise). Talented developers, weary of riding the big publisher merry-go-round, begin to look at alternative ways to make the games they want to make.
We've seen this trend happening already over the last few years, and famous game developers have left large companies in order to form their own independent studios or migrated from core games to mobile and social games that can be more cheaply and independently produced. Digital distribution services like PSN, Xbox LIVE Arcade, and Steam have provided outlets for these smaller companies, and now two successful Kickstarter projects have pointed to another possible way to fund interesting and niche game projects: crowdfunding.
Although Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites have been used so far to help small indie game projects, the game industry noticed when the well-known Double Fine posted a Kickstarter project for an old school point-and-click adventure game. It's the sort of game that doesn't receive funding from traditional publishers because of its supposed niche appeal, but the Double Fine Adventure went on to earn three million dollars (far over its initial goal) from interested gamers in the month that it was up on Kickstarter.
Following up on Double Fine's success, veteran game developer Brian Fargo and his studio, inXile, created a Kickstarter project for Wasteland 2, a sequel to an RPG that was published in 1988 and served as a precursor to the Fallout series. Onlookers wondered if this even-more-niche project would find backing, but it reached its $900,000 goal in only two days and has now earned over a million dollars. Clearly there is an appetite out there for these kinds of projects, but beyond Tim Schafer and Brian Fargo's well-known status amongst the old school gaming community, why have their projects been able to earn so much money directly from gamers based on nothing but the promise of an old school game?
For one thing, traditional big game publishers tend to focus on the 16-24-year-old male demographic as a target for video games. Those of us older than our mid-twenties may not have as much time to game as we once did, but we certainly still have disposable income, and these Kickstarter projects show that we're willing to pony up our cash in order to support the development of game genres that have fallen out of favor in the modern industry. I'll also argue that there's a hunger in the gaming community for stronger writing in our games; the kind of writing that we know Schafer, Fargo, and their teams can provide. Additionally, I think that a lot of gamers are aware of the difficulty that smaller companies are having getting their projects funded, and want to send a message to the big publishers that we support both a more diverse selection of games and the creative vision of talented game designers.
Obsidian's Unfortunate Contract
A story that circulated around the gaming press on Thursday gives a great example of why game developers are searching for new and creative ways to fund their projects. It was announced that Fallout: New Vegas creator Obsidian Entertainment's latest (unannounced) project was canceled by publisher Microsoft, and along with the cancellation came quite a few layoffs, including some from the development team working on the THQ-published South Park game. Worried for the future of the company, some fans wondered why Obsidian was so strapped for cash after the sales success of Fallout: New Vegas. Via Twitter, Obsidian developer Chris Avellone noted that Obsidian had only received a flat payment for developing New Vegas, along with a bonus if the game received over 85% on Metacritic. Obsidian thus didn't earn any royalties from the sales of New Vegas, and also failed to earn the Metacritic bonus by a single percentage point.
Of course, Obsidian knew the terms of its contract when it was signed, but it likely didn't have a good bargaining position with Bethesda, since its previous game, Alpha Protocol, didn't sell terribly well. The folly of tying project funding to Metacritic scores seems clear, yet it's happening more frequently as publishers attempt to only outlay cash on "sure thing" projects. I'll note that Cheat Code Central gave Fallout: New Vegas a 4/5 score, which is "great" according to our scoring system. It's a real shame that our score and the scores of other similar sites (who use our entire scoring range instead of mostly scoring in the top 30% of the range) helped bring down the Metacritic score and the bonus pay for developers who created a game we thought was great.
It's publisher shenanigans like these that are causing game developers to seek out alternative funding for their projects, and I hope that we as gamers are willing to support these small and medium-sized development companies. Although I've certainly enjoyed my share of AAA game titles, many of my fondest and most memorable gaming experiences have come from smaller and more-niche titles, and I know I'm not the only one who feels this way.
Date: March 16, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*