The Future is Niche

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For a a few years now, the release of MMOs has followed a predictable pattern. There is 2 years of excitement and anticipation, people stake their claim as to whether they are for or against it, and then it launches with high numbers. Those numbers take a huge hit at the end of the first month, and they continue to drop over the next 3 months, at which point the population begins to stabilise. That’s normally about that for a game without a change of business model which can rejuvenate a game at best, or keep it going longer at the worst. Essentially, most games are managing decline from the moment they launch. You’ll basically never be a more popular MMO than the day you launch.

There are many reasons why this cycle may seem so typical. It could be that people are bored of the genre, it could be there’s too much competition, it could be because so many launch with subscriptions, or any other number of points you can think of. Personally, I think MMOs just became to big a business. We have safe games, more of the same games. Give people what we know they like games. I’m not saying I hate MMOs, because clearly I don’t, I just think it’s a little hard to argue that the genre, at least the mainstream genre, hasn’t  gotten a little stagnant. I think it’s possible we could be moving to a more encouraging, albeit smaller scale, model for making MMOs. Games which are designed to appeal to a small player base, but offer something truly different, or at least different from what is on offer now.

If you take a look at titles like The Repopulation, Camelot Unchained, or Shroud of the Avatar, these are games which are clearly not intended to draw a large audience. Mark Jacobs, the lead developer of Camelot Unchained has been saying since their crowdfunding campaign that they intend to have a playerbase in the tens of thousands. I’m convinced this is a real alternative for making games, and recognising that you’re developing for a niche, and catering purely to that niche can lead to success over the long term. It is of course never going to lead to triple A games (except for Star Citizen maybe?), but my hope is that these smaller titles can shake up the landscape a little and coexist with larger titles, offering some new ideas to reenergise things.

Ever since playing Eve I’ve appreciated what launching small can do for a game. You can start with a small playerbase, build a game entirely for those players, and hope that it draws in more likeminded people over the course of its lifespan. Eve has never compromised on its core design choices, it has never made any apologies for being a difficult, hard game to learn and play. Yet it has grown steadily over a decade. I have high hopes that some of these new and smaller titles will be able to utilise a similar design path, and perhaps bring us something different from what we’ve seen so much of recently.

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Tales From the Kickstarer Crypt: Neal Stephenson’s CLANG

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Have you ever wanted a real sword fighting game? With motion controls? One which facilitated the learning of ancient sword fighting techniques, and somehow magically created a sense of force-feedback? Well Subutai Corp’s developers promised all of this when they launched a Kickstarter campaign back in the crowdfunding gold rush of 2012.

The thing which probably got them a lot of attention though, was Sci-fi /fantasy author Neal Stephenson, who is apparently a big deal (I’d never heard of him, but I don’t really read those genres), was heading up the pitch. He even presented their flashy Kickstarter videos:

CLANG just scraped by with its funding goal, reaching a total of $526,125 out if its $500,000 target. I must confess this was during my first brushes with Kickstarter, and I was quite excited about the prospect of the game. Not quite enough to back it though, it must be said. Perhaps now I’d be a little more cynical about this sort of project, because it was quite clearly never going to end well.

Kickstarter Claims

What should have been my first red flag is that the plan was for the game to utilise a third-party motion controller:

“Low-latency, high-precision motion controller: Critical to a satisfying sword fight is fast, accurate response. This is especially important for CLANG given the depth and complexity of moves that are used in real sword arts. Initially, CLANG will make use of a commercial, third-party, off-the-shelf controller that anyone can buy today”

Now, it seems unlikely to me that many people would be willing to buy a third party peripheral in order to play a game. However it seems more unlikely that any motion controller available these days is capable of reproducing the kind of complex swordplay being discussed here. For example:

“Depth: Roundhouse swings and crude blocks just aren’t enough. Real sword fighting involves multiple attacks delivered from different stances, pommel strikes, grappling, feints, and parries.”

I doubt anyone who has wildly flailed around a Wii controller will recognise those kinds of fighting as a possibility, and even the best motion controller available now couldn’t replicate force feedback, in the manner Stephenson discuses elsewhere, very effectively at all. 

Something which may have escaped peoples attention around the time that the pledge was launched, was that Subutai were in fact seeking only to develop a functional prototype of the game in order to obtain further investment.

“Raising an army (or, in this case, building an enormous story-driven video game) is an expensive proposition and can take a number of years. In keeping with the scrappy, ragtag band of adventurers model, we are building this larger vision one step at a time. The next step is to build a functional proof of concept in the form of an exciting prototype we can share with you and use to achieve our next level of funding…”

This is fine of course, but I think you’d be forgiven for not noticing this, especially when many of the pledge tiers refer to things like: “Two copies of the game. Keep one for yourself, give one to a friend! Includes a thank you credit on our website and within the game.”

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Lack of Updates

When the developers began to go quiet after some months of development, many backers began to fear the worst. Until Neal Stephenson produced an update, called The State of Clang, in which he stated that “we’ve hit the pause button on further CLANG development while we get the financing situation sorted out.” In essence, they had run out of money and the game would not be completed in any form, even as a prototype. A lack of interest from investors was the cited reason, with all backers money seemingly invested into a product that would be very unlikely to see the light of day again.

This is perhaps an understandable risk with this sort of ambitious project, which also seeks to reinvent the use of third-party hardware. However, the tone of the announcement left many feeling angry. Here follow some of my favourite quotes:

“Is the CLANG project dead? At what point do you put a toe tag on an indie game and call it finished? Opinions on that might vary, but in our opinion, the project doesn’t die simply because it runs out of money. Projects run out of money all the time. As a matter of fact, game industry veterans we have talked to take a blithe attitude toward running out of money, and seem to consider it an almost obligatory rite of passage.”

“The potential financiers most likely to talk to us are Neal Stephenson fans. Once they have actually met Neal and gotten their books signed, it turns out that they are not really that interested in our project. But they don’t want to make Neal Stephenson feel bad and so they don’t give him any useful feedback; instead they just go dark. In the meantime we have wasted a huge amount of time on them. We were slow to cotton on to this.”

And my absolute favourite:

LESSONS LEARNED

–Kickstarter lock-in. Kickstarter is amazing, but one of the hidden catches is that once you have taken a bunch of people’s money to do a thing, you have to actually do that thing, and not some other thing that you thought up in the meantime.

As you can see, there is a casualness with the idea that backers money would see no return that some found a little infuriating.

Over Ambition

I see no malice in this project, it seems to have been a failure because its goals were simply too lofty and, ,half a million dollars doesn’t go to far with this kind of  hardware development. To reinvent sword fighting using motion controllers is a monumental task, and half a million dollars doesn’t seem like a anywhere near enough to accomplish that. 

CLANG certainly ought to serve as a cautionary tale to any would be Kickstarter backers, and the projects themselves. Ambition is a good thing, but only promise what you can deliver, especially if you’re trying to reinvent the wheel.

Star Citizen: Too Big Not Too Fail?

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Star Citizen is a game that has generated a large amount of discussion since its crowdfunding campaign first kicked off in 2012, both about the game itself, and its business model. Ever since Star Citizen reached its funding goals, it has continued to take new backers, offering many multi-tiered backers levels and in game items such as ships, as well as physical items like t-shirts.  Heck, they are practically running an in-game item store right now, years before the game even launches.

All of this has led to some players being invested in the game to the tune of several thousand dollars. As I did when discussing Shroud of the Avatar, I can’t help but wonder what game could ever be worth that kind of investment to you without you feeling that whatever is released does not offer sufficient return on investment. I mean, what if you drop $5000 on a game, only to hate it when it launches, or 6 months later. As always I imagine some people are wealthy enough to treat this investment as some sort of a donation, well aware of the risks of doing so. Yet, you can’t help but think that there’s going to be at least some extremely disgruntled people post-launch who’ve heavily invested financially in the vision of the game.

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I say vision, because that’s really what we have at the moment. Some brilliant sounding features, and the dogfighting and hangar modules already released, and the dreams of a whole community. I’m extremely interested in the game, but I’m very aware that it is promising to be all things to all people, and many gamers seem utterly convinced it’s going to be the best game ever. It very well might be, but at this point, when we aren’t even fully aware of what minute-to-minute gameplay even consists of, I think caution is advised.

Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but in all my years of gaming, I’ve never seen hype like this turn out well. It’s very possible that when all the post-launch drama and recriminations die down, we’ll be left with an excellent game that just couldn’t please everybody, but what worries me is that it just might be trying to.

Tales from the Kickstarter Crypt: Areal

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Crowdfunding has been a hot topic over the last couple of years, and with good reason. It’s brought us some good games, promised us some great ones for the future, and created a few controversial stories too. Whatever you think of it as a means for funding games, it certainly gives us plenty to talk about. Over the next few weeks in Tales from the Kickstarter Crypt we’re going to take a look at some of the failures and successes of the crowdfunding model .

For our first week we have an absolute nightmare of a Kickstarter campaign, with some interesting twists in the tale. Areal was brought to Kickstarter by developer West Games, and they promised to make a spiritual successor to the seminal PC game S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl , a shooter in which players traverse a mysterious radioactive open world. West Games planned to develop this within two years, and release it for the PC, the Playstation 4, Xbox One and the Wii U.

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Many S.T.A.L.K.E.R fans were excited, and people began to back the project. But, suspicions were raised by the small funding goal set by West Games, with only $50,000 being asked for. This seemed a very small sum of money for a project of the scale and scope which was being proposed. Lead developer, Eugene Kim told Russian site Games-TV that in fact this money was only needed to be able to attract the attention of larger investors. Or, at least that’s what he said at first.

On the company’s Kickstarter homepage Kim then said that the developers had pooled their own money, and were simply using Kickstarter to take them over the line stating:

“Unlike most companies, every one of our employees has invested their time and money into making Areal. The budget that we’ve pooled together covers salaries and some aspects of game development. We need the Kickstarter and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. community to support us by helping us cover the rest.”

However, in another interview with Kotaku Kim claimed that the project in fact already had investors lined up:

“What I can say is that Microsoft has reached out to us and is interested in our project. With that said, we will remain independent in any case and will release on all the platforms we listed. Of course we need people’s support to help us get the game out there, and of course, the more people contribute, the more resources we have.”

Understandably, people began to grow suspicious at all of these different explanations.

Allegations of Misused Assets

Another thing which raised suspicions about this Kickstarter, was the assets being used in the video on the games Kickstarter page shown below, which seemed to show footage of the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R games, without labels. What was new appeared to be stock Unity assets, which would be fine if West Games weren’t claiming to be designing a new engine from the ground up.

However, even the various screenshots and assets shown by West Games faced accusations of being photoshopped or stolen from other sources. Wiiudaily.com investigated and posted the following images.

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The above picture shows the Areal Kickstarter image on the left, while the right image is from a Unity Medieval Utility screenshot. The Areal image looks fairly obviously like a photoshopped version of the Unity image.

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These assets from S.T.A.L.K.E.R 2 and Areal certainly look mighty similar too.

The Development Team

One of the main selling points for Areal was that it was apparently being developed by people heavily involved in the creation of the first S.T.A.L.K.E.R game. However, this was thrown into doubt when developer Vostock Games, made of a large portion of the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R  development team, claimed that this was false. This led to vicious claim and counter-claim by West Games, until Vostock Games clarified that they merely meant that stating “brought to you by the creators of S.T.A.L.K.E.R” was disingenuous, as S.T.A.L.K.E.R had been created by many people.  Much damage had already been done by this claim however, with many now proclaiming the entire Kickstarter a fraud.

This was further complicated by the fact that people discovered that photos of the development team on the Kickstarter page were available on a stock photo site, for sale. This did prove to be innocent enough however, as the picture were taken by a friend, and the team had agreed to this use of the photos. Yet, once again, much damage was done by these accusations before this clarification was provided.

Friends in High Places

Things then took a turn into the decidedly surreal when West Games claimed they had received a letter from Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Despite they themselves expressing doubts about the veracity of this letter, they published it anyway;

“Dear Eugene,

My daughter told me about your game called Areal, which is the spiritual successor to STALKER, and told me that she payed money to support your project on Kickstarter. I also love video games as well as shooters, and I like this idea. It’s important that our people do not shoot at each other, but instead, play games like this.

The first part of STALKER took place in Ukraine, and in the second game Areal, you put all events in the center of Russia – and if this is a war with mutants in a video game, then that is very interesting. I attentively familiarized myself with your idea and I really like it.

If you give me the chance to play the alpha version of the game, when it is ready, then I invite you in advance to the Kremlin, to meet personally, be ready to play a little bit and talk about the interests of young people, the gamers of our country.

Best regards,

[Signed]

V. Putin”

Personally, I’d love this to be real just for the comedy factor, but I think it’s a little hard to believe.

Vicious Kickstarter Comments

By this point West Games were recieving extremely nasty comments on their Kickstarter page. West Games claim that, as a Ukranian Developer, they are under attack as a direct result of a Russian conspiracy, with relations between the two countries being what they are at the moment.

They also received many negative comments from a rival developer and S.T.A.L.K.E.R mod creators, Misery Ltd., who later backed down and agreed to stop posting them. But once again, none of this exactly created trust in the Kickstarter campaign.

Kickstarter Suspend the Campaign

In the final days of the Kickstarter campaign, the game was some way off achieving its target funding goal of $50,000. However, somehow, the company received almost half the total funding goal within the last two days.

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Looking at this graph from Kicktraq though, you will notice that on one of those days there were no backers, and on another only 2. Now, I’m not 100% certain as to the accuracy of these graphs, but if correct, that certainly looks pretty suspicious.

What we do know however, is that after the campaign met it’s funding goal, it was suspended by Kickstarter. As far as I am aware they have provided no reasoning for doing so, but many have stipulated this suspicious funding activity may be the reason why,

And so concludes one of the strangest and most bizarre Kickstarter campaigns I’ve ever heard of. A sorry tale for sure, and at the end of it I’m still not totally clear as to whether this campaign was devious, naive, or just stupid.

Join me next Wednesday for more Tales from the Kickstarter Crypt. Muhahahahaha!

Shroud of the Avatar and Backer Regret

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A few weeks ago, I backed my very first crowd funded game in the shape of Richard Garriot’s Shroud of the Avatar. I first became aware of the game on Massively around about a year ago, but only really examined it in detail very recently. Now, the game is currently only available for play testing on limited pre-alpha weekends which occur at roughly monthly intervals, so I’ve really only had the chance to mess about in it for a few hours, and those few hours were fraught with poor performance, crashes and bugs, which are all to be expected at this stage. It’s very rough and only a few of the core ideas are currently implemented, but I’m interested in what it could  become in time. Yet, I’ve begun to have some regrets about my purchase.

Now, I purchased the game quite cheaply, as I managed to receive a voucher which knocked the backer level price down to $25 so it’s not the monetary aspect that bothers me so much. Nor is it a regret about the current state of the game; I went into this with what I consider to be the right attitude for crowd funding. Namely, that I effectively consider my financial backing a donation to a project I’m interested in, and whether I get a game I like from that is rather secondary as I realise what is released may be very different from what is being proposed now. What is bothering me is a general feeling of discomfort with the apparent business model which is being used to fund the game.

Like many crowd funded games, Shroud of the Avatar features many different tiers of backer pledges. From $45 to become a backer and receive access to the game when the servers are online, through a further 24 tiers right up to the ‘Lord of the Manor 2’ tier, which requires an investment of $12,000. Now, clearly some people who get this heavily invested in the game must have that kind of money to spare, although I begin to question how any game could ever be worth that much money to anyone. On top of this, which so far it has to be said is a pretty normal occurrence in most crowd funded games, Shroud of the Avatar also features a great many ‘add-ons’, where backers can up their current pledge in order to receive in game awards.

The most important ‘add-ons’ available are undoubtedly the housing plots and houses themselves, and these run up to some pretty hefty prices. A deed that allows you to create a player city for example, will set you back $1050. Now it’s possible if you go into that purchase with a dedicated group of gaming friends, and you legitimately think you’ll play this game for years, you might consider this a worthwhile purchase. And ultimately I have no right to judge how people spend their money.

What really concerns me about this however, is the feeling that the player base for a game which doesn’t even exist yet in any real sense is all ready being heavily divided into different tiers of haves and have-nots. You can’t help but feel that as a lowly backer you’re missing out on the supposedly fairly limited housing plots, and a large chunk of the sandbox play that the game is going to be all about. It is said that whilst housing is not going to be something everybody has once the game goes live, you will be able to purchase it through in game means. Now I’ve played enough MMOs in my time to know that just because something is technically available through in game means, it does not necessarily mean it is going to be available for anyone but the most hardcore and dedicated players. And even then it can often involve an extremely unpalatable amount of grinding.

All of this makes me very uncomfortable, and I feel that whilst I did my due diligence on what the game actually is now, and what it may become, I failed to look adequately into the way it was being funded. Maybe none of this will matter in the end, and Shroud of the Avatar will be a fine game in which housing is achievable for everyone, but I also worry that no game can live up to thousands of dollars of investment for those that are in that deep.