June 20, 2015 Leave a comment
Put down your pitchforks and torches, Shenmue fans. I already defended the existence of Shenmue’s campaign and your participation in it. Check my previous blog post, or click this link. Although you’ll be angry that I didn’t like the original Shenmue, because it totally matters how others feel about stuff you love. Especially if there’s a voice in your head telling you that the thing you love isn’t really as good as you say it is but you can’t just make it shut up unless you convince everyone in the world to love the thing you love as much as you think you do or convince yourself and others that their opinion on the thing you love doesn’t matter. Deep breaths, please. I’m on your side. Kinda.
Anyway, Shenmue III’s pitch sucks. Or maybe it doesn’t, because maybe it’s not a pitch at all. As some of my readers joked, they didn’t even really need to make a pitch. They just needed to post a donation box and say “we’re making Shenmue III. Give us money.” Which is pretty much what they did. And yes, that was all they needed to do. Maybe this wasn’t a campaign so much as it was a telethon. But as someone who has spent the last few years encouraging indie developers to work harder on their Kickstarters so that their campaigns don’t come across as greedy cash grabs, I sort of have to point out the lack of effort displayed. Their pitch is weak, vague, lacks transparency, and has some truly obnoxious stretch goals. When indie developers present me with campaigns this bad, it usually results in me sending back dozens of pages of notes asking for changes, with swear words and insults scribbled between the margins.
Shenmue III’s campaign has no budget breakdown. When people ask for my advice on a campaign, this is the first thing I require. I want every cent accounted for. And it’s not just because those backing the game have a right to know (although they totally do have a right to know). It’s because it prepares those getting the money to be accountable for that money. The thing about money is, it doesn’t discriminate who gets to wield it. Once money is in your possession, you can spend it anyway you see fit. Sure, there might be consequences later down the road if you don’t use it the way you’re supposed to, but the money itself doesn’t stop you from doing so. A budget breakdown also doesn’t stop you, but having one shows a certain awareness of expectations. The more specific that breakdown is, the bigger a sign it is that consideration and maturity are possessed by the people asking for the money. It’s one of many things a campaign can do to show your money is safe with it.
Not only does Shenmue III skip this most important of steps, but they’re being cagey about who their partners are on this project, and what they are contributing. Sony we know about, though that wasn’t clear at the time the campaign launched. It’s probably not a stretch to think Sega is involved somewhere, even if they’re just collecting a royalty on the IP. Yu Suzuki isn’t answering, only saying that his studio has backers. Okay, who? How much? You’re asking strangers (and fans are still strangers) for money. They worked very hard for that money. They’re putting that money on the line for a game series with a pretty sordid history. Don’t they have a right to know where their money is going?
I don’t really understand the caginess. There’s not a single fan that backed Shenmue III who would walk away just because Sony is involved. If anything, the truly diehard among them are probably ready to jump on Team PlayStation 4, if they weren’t on board already. As for other backers, I’m sure it’s probably boring things like banks, venture capitalists, or displaced gaming executives. You know, the types of institutions any large-scale gaming start-up gets their capital from. But, why not say it? Why leave an air of suspicion, especially when you don’t stand to alienate a single, solitary potential backer?
I’ll make a single concession to this issue: Japanese business culture is vastly different from Western business culture. Cards are often played closer to the chest. Awareness of strategic partnerships sometimes never makes the financial pages. Laws about disclosures or accounting practices differ in ways each-other’s cultures don’t understand. It’s often even a little socially taboo to talk about things like bank loans. Fine. All of that is fine. As long as you don’t ask Westerners for crowd funding. You did, so none of those cultural differences matter.
Frankly, discussing other issues I have with the campaign is a bit overkill. They missed the single most important step. I would never endorse an indie campaign that didn’t include a budget breakdown. Shenmue III isn’t an indie, and I’m sure they know what they’re doing and have reasonable certainty the project will be completed on budget (whatever that is) and on time (December 2017, assuming there is no delays, which games of this scope typically do have). And no, my dislike for Shenmue as a game isn’t why this pitch irks me.
It’s because these industry veterans should be role models for indies. I knew this day was coming. The day where a major gaming property would be revived from the ashes by crowd funding. Imagine my disappointment when the game I genuinely thought should break this new ground phoned in their pitch. Shenmue III’s campaign is shamefully lazy, lacking thoughtfulness and/or the feel of a genuine need for money. As I pointed out in my previous editorial, Shenmue III clearly couldn’t exist outside of Kickstarter. So why does the language of those in charge of it make it seem like they’ve got significant backing already? Maybe they don’t. Maybe they’re going to raise additional capital through traditional channels, based on the success of this campaign. We don’t know. And we should.
Above all, I hope that Shenmue III’s glorified cash grab of a campaign doesn’t inspire a new wave of indie developers to just expect gamers to throw money at them. The salad days of indies getting away with campaigns like Shenmue III’s ended about a year and a half ago. As a community, we’ve grown up. Who knows? Maybe the mainstream gaming scene wasn’t paying as close of attention to what indies accomplished with crowd funding as I suspected. Maybe AAAs will go through the same trials and tribulations with crowd funding as you guys did over the last three years. Maybe it’ll take the AAA crowd funding scene just as long to adapt and expect better of their campaigns as the indie scene did. Shenmue III certainly won’t be the last AAA to have a Kickstarter campaign. Maybe that’s why, deep down, I’m happy the Shenmue III campaign exists. Because now, for the first time ever, I can genuinely say that my beloved indie scene is ahead of the curve as an industry.