(Full disclosure: I paid into the Kickstarters for Mighty No. 9, Yooka-Laylee and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night)
With Mighty No. 9’s release date fast approaching, it’s only fitting that we’ve seen two similar Kickstarter success stories this past month: Yooka-Laylee and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. The former being developed by Playtonic Games, which is staffed by several ex-Rare members. The latter being produced by Koji “IGA” Igarashi, the man best associated with the Castlevania franchise, with music by Michiru Yamane and development being handled by one of my favorite Japanese independent developers, Inti Creates. Of course, both of these games are shaping up to be fitting spiritual successors to their developers’ most popular titles, the first two Banjo-Kazooie games and the Metroidvanias respectively. As such, both were fully-funded within the first day each campaign launched, which is especially impressive since they were running concurrently. More importantly, these two high-profile indie games are utilizing crowdfunding in a unique way: while Mighty No. 9’s crowdfunding campaign was publicized as entirely relying upon fan donations to make the game itself (which ended up not being the case, as Deep Silver has signed on as the game’s publisher and paid for extra content), Playtonic and Igarashi both disclosed from the beginning that they weren’t planning to fund their projects entirely through Kickstarter. Playtonic had enough funds to create a smaller, PC-exclusive title and resorted to Kickstarter to draw in the funds to both expand the game’s scope and increase the number of platforms it was set to release on, utilizing further stretch goals to enhance the game even further. How Igarashi utilized Kickstarter, on the other hand, was perhaps the most interesting: instead of intending to fund the entire game through donations, IGA planned to use his crowdfunding campaign to show potential investors that there was a market for his game. His plan worked perfectly, Deep Silver picked up publishing rights for Bloodstained before the campaign concluded.
Of course, that’s only half the story. Lately, big publishers, especially Japanese ones, have been effectively abandoning the direction which allowed them to make their fortunes in the first place. Square Enix, until just recently, had been focusing more on mobile games, aside from the usual Final Fantasy games and Eidos’ offerings. Of course, that was all put to rest during their E3 conference this year, where they confirmed the long sought-after remake of Final Fantasy VII; a sequel to sleeper hit NieR, developed by Platinum Games no less; Square Enix Collective, a Steam Greenlight-esque program where users can vote on upcoming project ideas that interest them; and Tokyo RPG Factory, a brand new studio dedicated to building the kinds of JRPGs that put Square and Enix on the map, as well as their first project: a brand-new IP currently codenamed “Project Setsuna”. Capcom…hasn’t really been doing much lately. Sure, Street Fighter V and Monster Hunter X are in the works, but aside from that, it’s mostly just HD remasters coming out of them these days. Worst of all, however, would be Konami. Recently, they said that they were going to focus more on mobile development in the future. Sure, they backpedalled after they caught wind of the internet backdraft, but the writing’s on the wall.
How did it come to this? In the end, it was pretty much inevitable. Even back in video gaming’s humble beginnings, the symptoms were there. It’s little more than just a long-running game of “follow the leader”. Even in what I considered gaming’s golden age (the 16-bit generation), it was there. It was there in every fighting game, Doom clone and anthropomorphic mascot with attitude we saw throughout the ‘90s. It’s stuck around with the onslaught of MMORPGs, sandbox games and console-optimized FPS games. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost with the mobile industry and that’s where the backlash has finally begun.
Mobile games have been built up into some sort of ultimate evil in the eyes of many hardcore gamers. That isn’t really hard to understand though: they pretty much are the antithesis of what the hardcore want, bite-sized experiences with simple gameplay mechanics. Unfortunately, due to their earning power, their overall popularity compared to other forms of gaming and their simplicity making it child’s play to churn out, mobile games have been considered a boon to the industry. Flappy Bird was literally making $50,000 a day at the height of its popularity. Clash of Clans is estimated to make over $1.5 million a day. You can’t argue with numbers like that. Like it or not, mobile games are the next big thing. It’s the same thing that happened when Street Fighter II, Sonic the Hedgehog, Halo, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto III all hit the scene.
Unfortunately for the several publishers investing money into these titles, following the leader way back when and today have the same issue: the audiences that are playing the big titles are generally happy with that they’ve got and are unlikely to move to a new game, especially if it’s just a simple knockoff of the game they’re already playing. We’ve seen this happen countless times as well: all the sandbox open-world crime games that aped Grand Theft Auto III bombed, the glut of 2D fighting games from Japan and the West caused the market to bloat and die for an entire generation and EA failed to take over the Call of Duty fanbase with Battlefield AND Medal of Honor, while alienating fans of the latter due to changing the franchise to grab an entirely new audience. Mobile games are dealing with the same kind of issue: for years, we’ve been hearing that only a statistically insignificant number of mobile apps in general end up being profitable. Even a popular game doesn’t equate to financial success, last year it was found that a mere 2.2% of free-to-play users actually pay any money into the games they’re playing.
To make matters even worse for the mobile scene, there’s an added weakness we’ve only seen in massively multiplayer online games in the past: the games themselves are open-ended. They’re constantly being updated, expanded and multiplied, either through spinoffs or sequels. This just adds to the lifespan of games in ways traditional console/PC games don’t. I know that sounds like a good thing, but given the flooded marketplace, it’s to the extent where it’s possible that a big hit with developers could become their own downfall when it comes to finding an audience for any future titles. After all, not everyone just wants to make one big game and live off of that one big success for the rest of their days, especially if said big game gets overshadowed by something new from another developer.
It’s kind of fascinating in a way, you’d think I’d be angry about the runaway success of the mobile games scene, and at one point, I totally would’ve been onboard with hardcore gamers’ witch hunt against the scourge of mobile games. These days, I’ve chilled out – I regularly play WWE Immortals, the Mortal Kombat X mobile game, Sonic Dash and even Cut the Rope on my train rides home from work – so I really can’t wish any ill will on the market as a whole. Still, it is somewhat disheartening to see big gaming companies from the past effectively throw out everything that made them industry leaders in the first place in order to chase mobile like it’s some kind of infinite source of revenue, when the reality is that mobile development comes with its own share of problems and pitfalls. Worse still, a lot of the time, these big developers try to cash in on some of their old IPs (looking at you especially, Capcom) in order to make a buck in mobile development, when it ends up being worthless. Honestly, Breath of Fire 6 on mobile devices and PC browsers? Do you think casual audiences know what the hell Breath of Fire is? Capcom didn’t just crap the bed with that one, it crapped two entirely separate beds: trying to cash in on an obscure title with a mobile game that mobile gamers probably don’t even care about and causing even more nerd rage in the existing BoF fanbase.
Of course, perhaps the best place to learn how to avoid these pitfalls in to look back to the past. I mentioned before that the eventual glut of clones for every one big success ended up ruining the whole thing. I was, of course, simplifying what had happened there. For all there were hundreds of terrible lazy cash-ins of every major hit, there were a few diamonds in the rough that carved out their own niches. Perhaps the best example is how those “Doom clones” I mentioned led to the birth of an entirely new genre: the first-person shooter. Street Fighter II’s success led to SNK hits like Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown and eventually King of Fighters, not to mention the Mortal Kombat series, which won over fans through digitized graphics and over-the-top violence to the extent where it’s actually been more popular than Street Fighter itself. Then you’ve got Saints Row, which went from a straight GTA-knockoff in its first game to a full-blown ridiculous parody of it in the second, with the craziness ramping up with each new iteration. No, simply using a successful title as a template is not what dooms a game to mediocrity, it’s failing to put one’s own spin on the formula and just churning out a (excuse the term) soul-less knockoff that’s just going through the motions.
Of course, all that really proves is that attempting to appeal to a niche audience is a better way for a company to remain profitable as opposed to simply chasing trends and playing follow-the-leader with whatever the industry leader is at that moment at time. You’d think it’d be obvious, but this bears repeating: the best way to make an impact on any industry is to fill a demand. We’ve seen various genres get revived to at least modest success. After spending a generation dead, the 2D fighting game made a big mainstream return with titles like Street Fighter 4 and the recent reboot of Mortal Kombat, X-COM: Enemy Unknown brought back the western turn-based strategy game back from the dead, won multiple awards and made enough money to warrant a direct sequel (due out later this year). And don’t even get me started on the wave of point-and-click adventure games we’ve seen in the past generation. In spite of the fact that these genres were written off as dead by major publishers, the audiences for them still existed. They were hungry for new content and appealing to them paid off well.
Which brings us full circle. Capcom thought MegaMan wasn’t a draw anymore, so Keiji Inafune did his own spiritual successor. Microsoft thought the 3D platformer was a non-starter, so some ex-Rare staff members banded together in their own studio and did their own spiritual successor. Konami had lost faith in the Castlevania games of old and tried to make it into a AAA-title, so Koji Igarashi left and did his own spiritual successor to the games he produced. Even now, Yu Suzuki is doing the same thing with Shenmue III, a true sequel authorized by Sega themselves. Every single one of those games made their crowdfunding goals, day one. Even Shenmue III, which asked for a whopping $2 million do get off the ground. I just finished saying this, but I think it needs to be restated: the audiences for these old games all still exist and they all still hunger for new content. In the end, publishers’ conservative nature and reliance on “playing it safe” didn’t help last generation and it certainly won’t this gen. In the end, playing “follow the leader” in order to find the next big thing is effectively going to lead to publishers walking off a cliff.
(Off-topic: how awesome is it that Killer Instinct 2013 is coming to PC next year? I can’t wait! Feels like ever since I killed off the PC ports series, more of my picks have been coming true. Here’s hoping we see even more.)