There was a time, not so very long ago, when games could be made by anyone who had the passion and the desire to do so. Small teams of friends, or even single people, could make games that were pushing the technological envelope of the medium, and they could do it in mere weeks. Many of these people were computer scientists, or university students who wanted to be computer scientists, giving them access to the required hardware. This was the golden age of videogames.
Unfortunately, that era has passed. While independent games are still made with this DIY ethos, and are sometimes even commercially successful, the real envelope-pushing stuff is being made with a a much less soulful approach than the homebrew projects of yore. The top of the videogame heap now belongs to multi-million dollar companies with HR departments, middle managers, and – most detrimentally – shareholders who expect a hasty return on investment.
The result of this increasing corporatism of the videogame industry is an overall decrease in the appetite for risk-taking. Less and less games are made with a truly unique and genre-defying design vision, and more and more games are made as bland sequels in easily digestible franchises; in other words, “safe” games. Games that won’t lose those all-important shareholders their money.
For most modern gamers, this is a story they’ve heard many times. The creative malaise in the industry is not a brand new phenomenon, and has been evident for more or less as long as the publisher-developer business model has been around. Fortunately for the videogaming populace – for whom the current industry model has been largely detrimental – a remedy may be in sight.
This elixir for the creative game developer’s woes is coming from somewhere that may never have intended to have anything to do with videogaming. It won’t make the creation of videogames any easier, per se, and it won’t bring back the days of five-man teams making triple-A titles. What it will do, however, is give development teams the freedom to make what they want to make, without having to get their development budget from a publisher.
The magical freedom potion in question is the recent rise to fame of Kickstarter, and the business model it allows the creators of art to adopt. Instead of asking a publisher for the money to make their game – a publisher whose primary concern will be their profit margin, rather than the creative integrity of the game – developers can instead ask the general game-playing public for the money they need to execute their vision.
The advantages of this, when the goal is to make a good game, rather than a top-selling game, are enormous. Unlike a publisher, the public couldn’t care less about profit margins. All they want is a game they’ll enjoy, at a price they can afford, that will be released in a timely manner. The effect this has on the people who make these games is simple; no more pulling punches.
For this new breed of crowd-funded developers, the days of making palatable, accessible games for the mass market are all but over. The are now free to make games on their own terms, without worrying about who the target demographic is, or how many units they can move. Their focus can shift to making truly beautiful pieces of art, that will become the timeless classics that their golden age predecessors have recently become.
So what does this mean for the consumers of interactive entertainment? The ubiquitous and ever-expanding group of people who can be called “gamers?” Well, it means a few things. The most immediately recognizable thing that this business model changes for consumers is the way buying videogames works. Instead of waiting for a release date to be announced, then heading to the local game store or digital distribution platform of choice when that date arrives, gamers can now buy games before they even exist, and that money can be used to make the game they’ve already bought. A few months later, they get the game in the mail or in their inbox, often with some sort of token of gratitude from the developers whose vision they helped fund.
Another effect of this paradigm shift will be an increased diversity in the kinds of videogames getting made. That is, if everything goes the way it ought to. The removal of the burden on developers to make massively profitable games will allow them to explore ideas that aren’t easily marketable as a specific genre or archetype, resulting (hopefully) in a wider array of different products available to consumers. Tough-to-pidgeonhole projects, cult classics like Psychonauts and Okami, can be made without fear of poor commercial reception. If this comes to pass, everyone wins; many of those genre-defying odd ducks have been some of the best games ever made.
It’s not quite all sunshine and roses, though. There is, of course, a few possible downsides to this new business model. The additional freedom from oversight that developers of a crowd-funded game have can have dire consequences, mostly in the case of inexperienced or unscrupulous developers. If these developers receive the money from consumers up front, much of the compulsion to make a quality product disappears. In most cases, the desire to make something everyone involved can be proud of (not to mention the increased monetary incentive of non-Kickstarter backers buying the game after release) is probably enough to ensure a quality final product. The other obvious way to avoid this unpleasantness is simply to give your money to projects made by developers with an established track record of making good games.
Theoretical pros and cons aside, we will soon see exactly what effect the advent of crowd-funded videogames will have on the industry, and there can be no doubt that a paradigm shift of vast proportions is imminent. In the coming months, we will see the first big-budget crowd-funded games start to be released. The massive success of Kickstarter campaigns for Wasteland 2, Shadowrun Returns and the as-yet-unnamed Double Fine adventure game has ensured this. In the coming years, we will see the more permanent effect of an environment in which developers can viably choose a business model that allows them to make triple-A, multi-million dollar games without giving up an ounce of their creative control.
This may just be the most exciting time in history to be a gamer.