With few exceptions, crowdfunding efforts don’t generally gain the attention they once did. To some degree I think this is because we’ve become jaded from all of the failures and misfires that we’ve seen from high profile crowdfunded games and hardware. One of the most popular crowdfunded projects ever, the Oculus Rift, just launched, and both backers and other customers have seen their delivery dates pushed back by over a month. Some projects, like the Ouya, do actually come out on schedule, only for us to realize that they’re not all they were cracked up to be. The worst are the ones that completely disappear, taking your money with them. But there’s also another category: works in progress that are massively delayed by creators who didn’t realize just how long it takes to release a major product.
One such project is Mighty No. 9, a video game that got its funding on Kickstarter. It’s the only major Kickstarter I’ve ever contributed to. And on paper, it sounds great: a spiritual successor to the original Mega Man series, made by some of the same people as the NES classics. With Capcom all but ignoring the Blue Bomber, this seemed like a great opportunity. But now that we’re a year in from the original projected release date after three last minute delays, backers are starting to get angry.
It doesn’t help that Mighty No. 9 has had more than its fair share of other controversy. First there was the community manager, allegedly hired because her boyfriend was working on the game, who was apparently rude to backers and forced her political ideology into discussions of the game. I don’t know how guilty she is of any of this, but even if it was blown out of proportion, it still caused great unrest among backers. Then there was Red Ash, a game and animated series that director Keiji Inafune and developer Comcept put on Kickstarter after already delaying Mighty No. 9. It suggested to some that they weren’t dedicated to actually finishing the first game, or that they really needed more money for the previous project. Either way, the campaign for Red Ash failed, and I imagine any future attempt will be met with doubt from the community. These are just a few examples; there are even more.
But the worst problems are the aforementioned delays. Each one was announced relatively late, with some claiming that the first delay was decided upon long before it was publicly known. After the second delay, Comcept promised to release a demo of the game for backers, and then the demo was itself delayed with little notice. Let me repeat that… a demo of the game, meant as an apology to backers for the delays without much notice, was delayed without much notice. The most recent delay was announced at the end of January, just weeks from the release date professed after the second delay. It’s worth noting that Inafune promised after the second delay that there wouldn’t be another. Until just a few days ago, all we knew was that he expected the game to come out some time during Spring 2016. After each delay, backers and other fans argue, debate, and express their frustrations on forums and in comments sections. And I’ve found that absent of any other controversies, the discussions come down to two questions: first, is it better for a game to be delayed and come out better, or not be delayed and come out worse? Second, what do backers have the right to expect?
The first question is more complicated than it seems. It would be incorrect to say that the game not being out yet is what gets people upset. But in any case, not all delays are the same. If a game from a well trusted developer is delayed for good reasons, you won’t see as many people getting ticked off. But Mighty No. 9 is from a fairly new collection of companies, and the reasoning did not seem to be sound. Backers were told, for example, that the latter two delays were due to problems with the online matchmaking. This was understandably not taken well, as it was primarily the single player mode that people wanted. It was explained that they couldn’t just release the single player part and patch in the multiplayer, but it was explained that they’d have to re-submit the game for certification, which would take longer. That may very well be true, but since the game is set to come out over a year after its initial release date, I find it questionable that it would really take longer. The introduction of Red Ash fueled these flames even more, as some believed that it was taking time and energy away from Mighty No. 9. I recognize that the people who were done with their part of Mighty No. 9 needed something to work on, but launching another Kickstarter campaign in the midst of all of this did not look good. So in this case it’s not about delaying the game to make it better, it’s about delaying the game at the last minute to fix a non-essential feature. And even that might have been fine with more backers if not for Red Ash.
The second question really applies to all crowdfunding. Most of us aren’t used to thinking in terms of financing and business roles. In most of our transactions, we know exactly what to expect: we pay for something, we get what we paid for. But investing is different. Here there is a risk, and it seems like a number of backers aren’t prepared for it. If a project completely fails, nobody is guaranteed anything out of it. As critics of unhappy backers like to say, backing is not the same as pre-ordering. And that is absolutely true. However, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for backers to expect what they backed to actually come out. When we backed the game, we were given a certain set of information. We were told what the game would be like, and approximately when we could expect it to be released. It was based on that information that we backed the project. When you combine that with the broken promise that there wouldn’t be a third delay, I believe backers do have the right to be upset about this. It would be the same with a traditional publishing model; publishers expect developers to meet the planned release date.
There is one caveat to this position, though. Quite a few people were upset to learn that the game uses 3D graphics, because the concept art presented with the Kickstarter was in 2D. I don’t get this complaint; just about every 3D game has 2D concept art. It’s a pretty big jump to assume that the game would use 2D graphics because of the concept art.
There is a happy ending to this story: Mighty No. 9 has officially gone gold and will come out on June 21st. Notably, that’s two days after what meteorologists consider to be the end of spring, and considerably after what most people would consider the end of spring. It also doesn’t cover the portable versions of the game, which still do not have release dates. Still, at least the game is coming out. It has certainly been a harrowing journey. But the real tragedy is that I imagine many will have lost all excitement for the game by that point. I know mine has been curtailed. Still, even if the game is a flop, the campaign at least stands as a warning to Kickstarter backers and creators alike.
If there is a message here, it’s that both sides need a better understanding of the other’s position. Using Red Ash as an example, backers need to understand that one department’s work on a game often ends long before the game comes out. On the other hand, Comcept should have recognized how bad it would look to launch a new campaign without having delivered on the previous one. Granted, there’s no question that Inafune and company botched this game’s release, but backers are still responsible for knowing what kind of relationship they’re getting into. I’ve certainly come out of this with a better understanding of how even the most promising campaigns involve a risk, and I hope that Comcept has learned a bit about working with people on the web.