I’ve been surprised at how much negative reaction to the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter has appeared in my twitter feed. Maybe not so much in the quantity of the reaction as the tone: it seems like the Kickstarter is a flashpoint in a culture war, while I don’t really understand why there has to be a war at all, or why this Kickstarter specifically has become a flashpoint.
The first article I saw referenced on the subject was David Houghton on Games Radar. And the first half or so of the article actually seems pretty good to me: I didn’t watch the E3 press conferences, so while I’m completely unsurprised to learn that the game is getting major Sony funding and that the Kickstarter is there to gauge interest and/or to be an ad for the game, it sounds like the initial announcement wasn’t up-front about those aspects of the Kickstarter. So yay, by all means get that out into the open.
But then we have this part of the article:
Here’s where I start having a real problem with the way this has been run. Because however I spin it (and believe me, I’ve spun it like a tumble drier), I keep coming back to the same bottom line. Individual members of the public have paid up to ten thousand dollars of their own money for a game they were led to believe had no other funding options. A game they were led to believe needed that money in order to happen. And that’s not okay.
In a way, yes, Shenmue 3 did need that Kickstarter to succeed, but only because Sony made that the case. It made that the case by making the public pass a test before it offered its own support, a test that it knew would cost the public hundreds and thousands.
(Emphasis in the original.) And I just don’t get it. In particular, I don’t understand the sentence “In a way, yes, Shenmue 3 did need that Kickstarter to succeed, but only because Sony made that the case.” Of course it’s true that there are other funding models possible for the game: doubtless, in a many-worlds version of the universe, there are universes where Sony decides to pay for it out of pocket, universes where a collection of fans somehow scrape together money to buy the IP, universes where Warren Buffett is a huge Shenmue fan and decides to pay for it himself! But paying for the game without external commitment isn’t the decision Sony made, it’s not the decision Sega made, it’s not the decision any company has decided to make in the 16 years since Shenmue came out and cost Sega a lot of money, it’s not the decision any company has decided to make in the 14 years since Shenmue 2 came out and failed to revitalize the series’s finances.
Game companies have dozens, hundreds, thousands of options for games they might make. They can’t make them all, so they need a way to choose. And I just don’t see how it’s helpful to the analysis to paint Shenmue 3 of all games as a game that Sony was right to consider making but wrong to not leap into with both feet. A world where Sony makes every game that they imagine is a world where Sony goes out of business; a world where Sony only makes games that they’re convinced will be big hits is a world where games from large publishers are even blander than they are now! I don’t think that Houghton is telling us that any world other than one of those two worlds is an immoral one, but I also am having a hard time teasing anything other possibility out of those paragraphs.
Later on, he says:
More infuriating is the fact that there was an obvious, easy, inoffensive way to handle all of this. By limiting donation tiers to a single, flat, $50 rate, Shenmue 3’s Kickstarter could have been turned into an elaborate pre-order system, the same level of player commitment shown without anyone being extravagantly out of pocket, and the backer rewards becoming an extra special pre-order bonus, with added goodwill.
“Infuriating” is an interesting word: like I said, this seems to be a culture war, and I’m not sure why. Setting that aside, though, I don’t see why Houghton’s proposal is an improvement over the actual Kickstarter. Assuming the game actually does getting published, then I’m getting a copy for $29; I like spending $29 more than spending the $50 Houghton wants me to spend! But some people like physical copies of games; if they want to spend $60, then great. And, honestly, the toy capsules, the soundtrack, the art book all sound cool to me; I’m not choosing to spend my money on them in this instance, but I’ve bought art books and soundtracks and figurines for games or movies in the past, I’m sure I will in the future, and I don’t see what’s wrong with those as options for people who want them. And then there are the $10,000 rewards, I’ll talk about those further down.
The concluding paragraph lays out his position most clearly:
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Kickstarter is for developers with no other funding options. Shenmue 3 has had other options ever since Sony first started to think about it (as it transpires, in 2013), and whatever the platform-holder is now going to pay into the project, it can probably afford it somewhat more comfortably than some of the rest of us can our donations.
That first sentence makes it clear where he’s coming from: Kickstarter is supposed to fit a specific place in a culture war, and people who think otherwise are wrong. Then he conflates having options with Sony deciding to commit to paying for those options. (So I guess the world he wants is a world where big publishers fund every game they seriously evaluate funding? Good luck with that one) And then the weasel words: “probably”, “some of the rest of us”. That’s so vague as to be impossible to falsify; I’ll just say that it’s also the case that some of the rest of us can afford to take a $29 flyer on a Kickstarter more easily than Sony can take a fifty-million dollar (or whatever your favorite estimate is) flyer on funding a game, and that, having seen what happened to Sega in the aftermath of the Dreamcast, it strikes me as ahistorical to present this game of all games as risk free.
The next article that I saw making the rounds was Matt Poprocki in Playboy. It started from where Houghton’s article left off, and then continued:
The barrier between consumer and corporations is dwindling. Maybe there isn’t one at all anymore. This is not capitalism—it’s a twisted and disfigured form of commerce, and it worked, and it will work again, when the next company tries it.
Of course it’s capitalism, and this shows the barrier between consumer and corporation as clearly as any example I can point to! I’m backing the Kickstarter; my risk is limited to getting nothing from spending $29, my upside is limited to getting an actual game. (Or maybe my risk is getting a game that I spend hours on and that turns out to be awful, and my upside is getting a game that I spend hours on and turns out to be wonderful.) Whereas Sony’s upside is potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and their potential downside is at the very least in the tens of millions of dollars and possibly in the hundreds as well. Sony and I play completely different roles in this scenario, and theirs is the capitalist side of it.
Now that the goal has been surpassed and Sony can rest assured that its investment in Shenmue 3 is justified, shouldn’t they stop asking for money? Shouldn’t they give that money back?
First: no, they can’t rest assured of that at all. The risk profile for the game is different now than it was before the Kickstarter, but there is absolutely still significant risk, there is still a potential downside of tens of millions of dollars. And, second: no, of course they shouldn’t give that money back! They have no reason to; and if I wanted Sony to give me my $29 back once the Kickstarter made its goal, then I wouldn’t have pledged the $29 in the first place! Poprocki apparently believes that I’m wrong to feel that way; I think Poprocki is being paternalistic.
They can just throw out classic game names to see what sticks. Actraiser, Battletoads, Streets of Rage; they would all be funded and set individual records, probably. If they fail, there’s no harm—the money stays in would-be backers’ bank accounts if the goal isn’t reached. Meanwhile, the truly independent developer whose Kickstarter isn’t backed by Sony or Microsoft or whatever huge marketing machine gets no attention, and innovation dies in the wood chipper of the triple-A blockbuster sequel machine.
And here’s where the culture war comes out. Like Houghton, Poprocki has firm opinions about the proper uses of Kickstarter; the rest of us are wrong.
I also saw retweets of a bunch of tweets from Stu Horvath on the topic; he then put his thoughts together in an article in issue 49 of Unwinnable Weekly. I said above that I thought that Poprocki was being paternalistic, but Poprocki had nothing on Horvath: Horvath says, “Think of me as the person trying to shake you awake”, to which my first reaction is that the word “sheeple” must have been deleted from an earlier draft of his article.
And boy howdy is this a culture war for Horvath. Later, he lays that out even more explicitly:
It is a kind of religiosity. Talking to Violet, I felt like we were living in a time of prophecy, that any deviation from orthodoxy might derail the Third Coming of Shenmue. It didn’t matter that maybe people were getting conned into paying upwards of $10,000 to pre-order a game that would eventually cost, at most, $60 retail.
He accuses other people of treating this as a matter of religion: but he’s the prophet who is trying to shake us awake. And that last sentence is, to my mind, a glorious combination of paternalism and factual incorrectness. He says “upwards of $10,000″, but in fact $10,000 is the highest tier, so I have no idea who is supposed to be paying more than that; and there is a cap of 23 people who have access to tiers more than $500. Right now, the game has 42,402 backers; of those backers, 24,895 are paying at the $29 tier.
So yeah, let’s assume that game will cost $60 at retail; that means that approximately 60% of the backers are choosing to get the game at half-price, and while about 30% of the backers are paying more than $60, those backers are getting stuff beyond just the game. Maybe I’m a bad person because I bought an Okami art book or a Katamari Damacy soundtrack, maybe the people I see on twitter who buy figurines for their favorite anime are horribly misguided, but I don’t see why; and I don’t see why I should treat people making similar choices about Shenmue as victims of a con that need to be shaken awake.
All three articles seem particularly disturbed by the $10,000 reward tier. (Though at least the other two articles don’t hallucinate higher tiers!) And of course there’s no way in hell that I’m going to spend $10,000 for the rewards at that level. But, seriously: there are 42,204 people who have signed up for that Kickstarter. Four of those people have decided that spending $10,000 was a reasonable choice for them. We’re not talking the 1% here: we’re talking the .01%, one out of every 10,000 people who backed the Kickstarter. I doubt that the income distribution of Shenmue Kickstarter backers mirrors the income distribution of the US as a whole, but if you’re in the top .01% of US income, then you’re making 27 million dollars a year; and if I were making that kind of money, then, honestly, maybe I would be totally happy to spend one-two-thousandth of my annual income on Ryo’s jacket! Really, the percentage of people affected is so small that we’re talking about lala land.
And I’d also like to know where the financial dividing line is beyond which Horvath will decree that people are getting conned. Was I getting conned by spending money to go to GDC? Was my family getting conned by the money we spent on our last family vacation? Are we getting conned by the tuition prices that we’ll spend to send Miranda to college? (Actually, I can answer that third one myself: yes.) Please, tell me the appropriate level, so I can make sure not to slide into religious orthodoxy!
In a less hyperbolic portion of the article, Horvath says what he wants Kickstarter to be, and it’s similar to what the other two authors want:
It is a free market, of course, and Kickstarter has a vested interest in lucrative, headline-generating campaigns. The Kickstarter I prefer, though, is the one before the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter, a place for creators to fund projects that would otherwise be impossible in conventional markets. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with the Double Fine campaign, but it started us down a long road that inevitably leads to campaigns like Zach Braff’s movie (which later got Hollywood financing) and Shenmue III.
He could just as easily have said: the Kickstarter he prefers is the Kickstarter that got Unwinnable Weekly funded. And I like that Kickstarter too – all eye-rolling at this article aside, I’m really glad that I backed Unwinnable Weekly! But small-project Kickstarter is still around: just to make sure, I looked again at my list of backed projects, and there’s a whole mixture of stuff there, with weird one-off stuff next to established small publishers next to, well, Shenmue. Maybe there’s some sort of apocalypse coming where all the small and medium stuff will disappear, but I don’t see evidence for that. And as to “religiosity”, “prophecy”, and warnings about “deviation from orthodoxy”: yes, I do see that, but where I see that is in an article that talks about “something terrible happening”, “getting exponentially worse”, that “will destroy the industry”.