Last year, on this very blog, I wrote about the difference between the pre-release hype surrounding The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and the final product. In it, I attacked the expectations shell game surrounding pre-order campaigns:
"We, the game-buying public, may never uncover the “fast one” that the developer pulled on us this time...maybe they deserve this mistrust for perpetuating the 'Pre-Order Now!' syndrome that plagues every game marketing campaign."
Now, in 2016, I get to revisit this argument with a crowdfunding twist. Mighty No. 9, released earlier this week, has had a rocky launch. Announced in 2014, Mighty No. 9 is the product of Mega Man co-creator Keiji Inafune and Comcept, his new game studio. Inafune and Comcept raised more than $4 million from PayPal donations and a Kickstarter campaign that promised a new Mega Man-inspired side-scrolling action game. Some Mighty No. 9 developers are ex-employees of Capcom, but the campaign did not involve Capcom or its Mega Man license; it's a brand new property.
Let's dive in to a summary of Mighty No. 9's launch issues this week:
- The Xbox 360, Mac, and Linux versions of the game promised to Kickstarter backers as part of reward tier incentives haven't yet been released on those platforms.
- Digital game codes released for some versions of the game, including PS4 and PC, could not be redeemed by backers.
- Two different pre-order DLC codes were promised with the game. but backers currently only received one of those codes.
- Wii U and PC copies were released with game-breaking bugs and widespread freezing issues (Comcept has since released a patch that addresses the freezing issue on Wii U)
These are all the customer-service level issues that don't even address the game's content. Games can be subjectively good or bad, but the reception of Mighty No. 9 was almost universally poor. Players complain that the game is riddled with bad voice-acting, boring cutscenes, dull level design, and hideous graphical textures like explosions that resemble pizza. The final Mighty No. 9 product, while not abjectly offensive, doesn't align with the original scope or vision outlined in the highly-publicized Kickstarter campaign.
During a livestream celebrating the game's launch, Inafune acknowledged the game's troubles:
"I own all the problems that came with this game, and if you want to hurl insults at me, it's totally my fault."
- Keiji Inafune, Mighty No. 9 director & designer
Adding insult to injury, his translator Ben Judd, a former Capcom colleague and current game consultant, commented on the anticipated criticism from fans: "Because I'll tell you what, I'm not getting my 2D side-scrolling fill. And at the end of the day, even if it's not perfect, it's better than nothing."
What happened to Mighty No. 9 is a product of the game's bizarre and insulting marketing, paired with frustrating delays, an unrealistic development plan, and a misleading crowdfunding campaign that spawned other head-scratching Kickstarters, including a cancelled one for a Mighty No. 9 TV series. Comcept overpromised and undelivered on the final game, leaving its backers to question their future ambitions. It's now the ultimate example of pre-development game marketing, nostalgia, and pre-order hubris setting expectations for gamers that will not ever be met. Mighty No. 9 failed to live up to its hype.
The implicit assumption of crowdfunding a game is that fans have the chance to financially support and get intimately involved with the development of games they're passionate about. Crowdfunding has led to excellent games in the last few years, including the rogue-like FTL (which enjoyed multiple platform releases), the tactical strategy game The Banner Saga (which was successful enough to spawn a sequel), and even the Mega Man-esque Shovel Knight (a game whose success spawned an character amiibo, free DLC updates, and allowed its developer Yacht Club Games to become a publisher).
However, crowdfunding also led to some ugly situations, including the severely delayed Final Fantasy Tactics-inspired Unsung Story, Ant Simulator's missing money and messy legal drama, and one of the most egregious hardware-related scams, the Coleco Chameleon. Some crowdfunded games get made and are celebrated, while others get cancelled or are litigated into oblivion. However, because crowdfunded games are made with backers' financial and spiritual support, there are more expectations and demands for transparency surrounding deliverable goods that do not exist with traditional game development financing.
We all buy into game ideas like Mighty No. 9 and then sell these ideas down the river when the hype machine fails us spectacularly. In the question of who is to blame for a bad game or bad pre-order hype mentality, there are no easy answers or easy scapegoats. The gaming press are largely gamers themselves: they're enthusiasts and advocates that experience the same games you do. Developers and publishers host the same press conferences we watch for future game information. We the consumers give our opinions through online forums, by word-of-mouth, or through written game reviews. None of these parties want games to fail: it's bad for the medium. With a lot of personal investment in our games from all stakeholders though, we all get burned by the marketing spin. So, what's the cure?
Transparency helps: when a game is subjectively or objectively terrible, it's worth having an honest and frank conversation about why that is. How much should developers involve the backer community? How do they ask for and implement fan feedback while keeping their games' vision, scope, and release schedule on track? In this context, Comcept's clarity and Inafune's honesty about Mighty No. 9's troubled development are worth applauding, even if it did result in a bad game. Sometimes a game's problems can be resolved with a patch, while other times, the criticism can be addressed in a sequel or followup to the original release. Additionally, so many games get shuttered before they have a chance to succeed or fail, such as EA's recent cancelling of Criterion's extreme sports game, and fans never know why thanks to a lack of clear communication from our biggest developers.
Crowdfunding has largely been positive for gaming, giving fans a chance to directly support their favorite developers and projects. In order for it to stay that way, the expectations and hype around games has to be less toxic. Developers should also be weary of taking public money for their projects in exchange for the perfect return-on-investment most of us expect from a crowdfunded game. If these unrealistic notions don't change, future enterprising developers will never secure crowdfunding for cool game concepts, and consumers will continue to resent developers for misplacing their trust and good will. It's a bad situation made worse when major Kickstarter games like Mighty No. 9 flop.
Let's recognize that Mighty No. 9 is a bad video game and move on. After all, Comcept is linked to at least 3 future games:
- ReCore, the promising puzzle platformer shown off at E3 this year, is being co-developed by Comcept and Armature Studio
- Red Ash: The Indelible Legend, a Mega Man Legends-inspired game, is being developed by Comcept. Despite Comcept's failed Kickstarter last year, Chinese game company Fuze Entertainment announced they would fund the project instead.
- Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Koji Igarashi's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night-inspired game, is being co-developed by Comcept and Inti Creates, the company that co-developed Mighty No. 9. The original Kickstarter for Bloodstained was partially financed Digital Development Management, who was also involved with Mighty No. 9 financially.
I would hate to see these games fail the same way Mighty No. 9 did: on the expectations of everyone involved.