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The gaming year 2013 in review

Traditionally, this spot is reserved for looking back at the gaming year, a 'state of the gaming union' of sorts. This year, I would like to use it to address an issue that - if not nipped in the butt - could prove to put a break on the development of gaming as in industry.

The Funding Game

In last year's Year in Review article, I spoke of how the PC gaming renaissance had only just begun. In 2013, that renaissance has gathered momentum up to the point that I would call the platform now 'pregnant with promise' but also 'in perilous waters'.

Over the course of next year, many of the most successful Kickstarter games will burst onto the scene and hopefully prove that we no longer need large publishers to satisfy our gaming needs. Quenching our thirst for great experiences are heavily funded games such as the space trading game Elite: Dangerous (funded at $2.5 million), survival RPG Wasteland 2 ($3 million in funds), the role-playing epic Pillars of Eternity (formerly Project Eternity, funded at $4 million) and that other 'little' space trading game Star Citizen which was funded at a dizzying $34 million after fans kept on throwing money at Chris Roberts' (of Wing Commander fame) game studio throughout the year. But equally interesting are smaller games such as Godus (funded at $850k) and Jagged Alliance Flashback (a 'mere' $370k).

Looking at those games it is difficult not to get over excited, and we have every right to be. All have been crowd funded, all are made without 'corporate evil eyes' nitpicking at every feature and all are developed by people who would give their right arm to be allowed to work on them. There is no doubt in my mind that all of them will be worth playing but such enormous budgets can also become a burden, or a cause for disillusion of those who provided the funds.

Case in Point

Earlier this year I reviewed Shadowrun Returns, one of the first high-profile Kickstarted titles to be released to the public. Its successful Kickstarter campaign reached a well earned $1.9 million and the atmosphere in the community was so electrical after that success that the air crackled. Shadowrun was back in the hands of its creator, a new game was coming, what could go wrong? Well, nothing particular, but the game was short, lacked depth and felt more like the $400k game that developer Harebrained Schemes originally set out to create than the $1.9 million game it could, no - should - have been.

Shortly after that review, I asked around to find out what sort of budgets small to medium sized publishers would sink into a game of the size and ambition level of Shadowrun Returns. Not surprisingly, not all my questions received answers but the budget estimates that - did - come back ranged between $500k and $1 million. Seeing that those answers came from established mid-tier publishers who likely have higher overhead costs than Harebrained Schemes, I think it safe to conclude that Shadowrun Returns was likely developed around the lower end of that spectrum and within the boundaries of its initial Kickstarter budget. So what happened with the rest of the money? Did Harebrained Schemes make a cool $1.5 million profit before the game was even released and over the backs of its funders?

Alarmed by this realization, I asked Wasteland creator Brian Fargo what he was going to do with all the extra money that he raised for Wasteland 2 during his presentation at this year's Gamescom. Would he use it up to make Wasteland 2 the best it could ever be, or would he pocket it as Jordan Weisman seems to have done with Shadowrun? His answer "We'll put every dime into making the game better." sounded sincere and shows that different developers have different ideas of how to handle unexpectedly large budgets. Moreover, I really hope we will see this in the end product.

A much needed discussion

Don't get me wrong, I'm not pounding on Harebrained here. I liked Shadowrun Returns and I like the company. Jordan Weisman and team are bound to bring other good games to market in the coming years. Yet it is clear that our interests as "funding partners" are not always being served, which in turn raises difficult but necessary questions such as "What are the responsibilities of a game developer seeking Kickstarter funding?" and "Do we even know our interests as funders, or care?".

I think it is time to start this discussion before our love for Kickstarted games wanes due to unfulfilled promises and expectations. It is time that developers realize that when you Kickstart a game, you are developing the game not just - for - your fans, but also - in cooperation with - your fans. Even if you retain full creative freedom in whatever you do (one of your reasons to Kickstart after all), you have a moral obligation to those who have provided you with funds to deliver a game that is fitting for the budget, release additional free DLC to justify the budget - or - simply return the unused funds.

We need a gentleman's agreement between those who fund and those who develop. The latter should always create the best possible game and cram every cent out of the budget and design great gaming content. With such an agreement the Kickstarter community will thrive, and so will PC gaming. Without, I fear people will turn away from the platform and the very idea of crowd funding. Disillusioned by broken promises and unmet expectations, the gaming community as a whole will suffer.

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